Barring the unexpected, the field for the Grade I, $2-million Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands on Saturday, May 4 will include the top three finishers from the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby for the first time in history.
Unbeaten Tampa Bay Derby winner Verrazano, runner-up Java’s War and third-place finisher Falling Sky have begun their preparations at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Tampa Bay area fans pulling for all three horses to excel may suffer from excitement overload, since Falling Sky is a confirmed front-runner, Verrazano is a stalking type and Java’s War is a from-out-of-the-clouds closer.
And although students of pedigree may insist a certain 3-year-old lacks the bloodlines to tackle the mile-and-a-quarter distance, one need look no further than the past four runnings to glimpse the potential for a huge payoff at the mutuel windows: 2012, I’ll Have Another, $32.60; 2011, Animal Kingdom, $43.80; 2010, Super Saver, $18; 2009, Mine That Bird, $103.20.
Tampa Bay Downs will open its gates on Saturday, May 4 at 10 a.m., to accommodate fans who don’t want to miss a race from Churchill Downs, which plans to begin its card at 10:30. The expected first-race post time at Tampa Bay Downs is 12:15 p.m.
Fans coming to Tampa Bay Downs on Friday to watch a full card of Thoroughbred action and the simulcast of the Grade I, $1-million Kentucky Oaks for 3-year-old fillies can also wager on the entire Saturday card at Churchill.
The Tampa Bay Derby has produced two winners of the Run for the Roses: Street Sense, who won both races in 2007, and Super Saver, who finished third in the 2010 Tampa Bay Derby before his classic score.
The Tampa Bay Derby actually produced four Kentucky Derby starters in 2009. Musket Man, who won the Oldsmar showcase, also won the Grade II Illinois Derby before finishing third in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. The second-place Tampa Bay Derby horse in 2009, Join in the Dance, was seventh in Louisville.
Nowhere to Hide followed his fourth-place Tampa Bay Derby effort with a 17th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. General Quarters – who won the Grade III, then-$225,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs that February – was fifth in the Tampa Bay Derby, then won the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland before a 10th-place performance at Churchill Downs.
Still another product of that year’s graded-stakes program at Tampa Bay Downs, seventh-place Sam F. Davis Stakes runner Atomic Rain, competed in the Kentucky Derby, finishing 16th.
For trivia buffs, the third-place finisher in the 2009 Tampa Bay Derby was a California-bred gelding named Justdontcallmejeri who won three of his next seven starts after leaving Oldsmar, albeit in claiming and starter allowance company.
Verrazano – one of three horses likely to be the betting favorite, along with Orb and Revolutionary – undertook his final serious Kentucky Derby workout Saturday, drilling five furlongs in 59.40 seconds and going out six furlongs in 1:13 under exercise rider Humberto Zamora.
Verrazano’s trainer, Todd Pletcher, moved up workouts for five of his six Kentucky Derby hopefuls to Saturday after hearing of a forecast for rain on Sunday. “I thought Verrazano’s work was very good,” Pletcher said. “He was well in hand and handled the track well.”
Java’s War, who worked in company with fellow Ken McPeek-trainee and Derby prospect Frac Daddy, was timed in 1:02 for five furlongs, galloping out six furlongs in 1:16.60.
Falling Sky – who won the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 2 – put in a 1-mile gallop Saturday, a day after breezing five furlongs in 59.60 seconds, the fastest time Friday at that distance. “Mentally and physically, he came out of it really, really well,” said Reynaldo Abreu, assistant to trainer John Terranova II.
Each of the three Tampa Bay Derby graduates has raced since that March 9 contest. Verrazano won the Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 6; a week later, Java’s War captured the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland. Also on April 13, Falling Sky finished fourth in the Grade I Arkansas Derby.
Numerous festivities and events are being planned at Tampa Bay Downs for the big weekend, which will bring the 87th season of Thoroughbred racing to a close. Fans are encouraged to join the fun by participating in the traditions that help to make the Derby such a beloved spectacle, such as sipping on a refreshing mint julep or entering the hat contest under the tent in the Backyard Picnic Area.
In addition to being the final day of the 2012-13 meet, Sunday, May 5 is Fan Appreciation Day, with free admission and food and beverages at discounted prices. And of course, Tampa Bay Downs will present two quality-laden cards of exciting Thoroughbred action on its final weekend.
The Gift Shop on the first floor of the grandstand has begun selling Kentucky Derby merchandise such as T-shirts, caps, shot glasses and souvenir glasses, which are inscribed with the name of each Derby winner from Aristides in 1875 through I’ll Have Another in 2012.
Street Gem, a 3-year-old owned by Just For Fun Stable LLC and trained by Kathleen O’Connell, won Saturday’s feature race, the $24,500 Lambholm South Race of the Week allowance at a mile on the turf course for sophomore fillies.
Street Gem, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Street Boss-Nesselrode, by Lemon Drop Kid, rolled past pace-setter Wild About Irene inside the 3/8-mile pole and drew off under jockey Danny Coa to win by three-and-three-quarter lengths. She paid $3.60 as the 4-5 favorite.
Coa, who was recognized during the afternoon as the Hilton Garden Inn/Hampton Inn & Suites Jockey of the Month, also won the 11th race, a seven-furlong maiden claiming event, on 4-year-old colt Jamestown for owner Stoneway Farm LLC and trainer Robert O’Connor II.
Sunday’s 10-race Thoroughbred card begins at 12:35 p.m. Next week’s schedule features full cards on Friday, May 4 and May 5.
Calvin Borel’s election to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame rekindled memories of his masterful performance in 2007 aboard Street Sense in the then-Grade III, $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby, perhaps the most exciting race in track history and the most significant, given the circumstances.
Street Sense, the 2006 Champion 2-Year-Old, repelled 7-10 favorite Any Given Saturday by a nose in his first race since winning the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churcill Downs the previous November. A mere seven weeks later, following the plan mapped out by Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger, Street Sense and Borel won the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, the first of three Derby victories for Borel in a four-year span.
Borel notched career victory No. 5,000 earlier this year and won the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in 2010. He and Pat Day are the only jockeys with more than 1,000 wins ar Churcill Downs.
Borel, who is scheduled to ride Revolutionary in next week’s Kentucky Derby, will be inducted Aug. 9 at the museum in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., along with two-time champion sprinter Housebuster; 2006 Horse of the Year Invasor; two-time Breeders; Cup Mile champion Lure; and steeplechase greats McDynamo and Tuscalee.
Tampa Bay Downs is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.