Jaw-dropping might be one way to describe Verrazano’s three-length victory Saturday in the 33rd edition of the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby.
Awesome and spectacular almost seem like clichés, given the ease with which he won. Maybe Kenneth McPeek, the trainer of runner-up Java’s War, summed it up best.
“Todd’s horse is a freak,” McPeek said of trainer Todd Pletcher’s second Tampa Bay Derby winner, and clearly the No. 1 3-year-old now on almost everyone’s Kentucky Derby list.
Seeming to toy with the opposition most of the way under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez despite stumbling at the break, Verrazano improved to 3-for-3 with his victory in 1:43.96 for the mile-and-a-sixteenth. Java’s War was rolling late and came home four-and-a-quarter lengths ahead of early pace-setter Falling Sky, with Dynamic Sky fourth and the rest strung out. Verrazano paid $2.80 to win.
Verrazano’s victory was one of five on the card for Velazquez from seven mounts, the second-most winners in track history by a jockey. It was also one of two stakes triumphs for trainer Todd Pletcher, who saddled Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes winner Old Tune.
Pletcher also won the 2004 Tampa Bay Derby with Limehouse.
A crowd of 10,476, the fifth-largest in track history, attended the Festival Day 33 card. Total all-sources handle was $10,291,827.76, the fourth-highest ever, and on-track handle was $857,815.50.
Verrazano, who is owned by the Let’s Go Stable syndicate headed by Bryan Sullivan and Kevin Scatuorchio and the Coolmore entity of Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith and Susan Magnier, earned 50 points toward qualifying for a spot in the May 4 Kentucky Derby.
Pletcher normally is not given to superlatives, but acknowledged Verrazano may be the second coming of any great horse you want to name.
“He has had some freakishly good performances and some of the things he does in the morning in his training, we don’t see too often,” he said.
“Today was a good performance. He is a lot like his sire, More Than Ready; he has a great disposition and a great mind. You always worry about the variables – his first time shipping to a new place, the first time around 2 turns, the first time in a stakes. So we had a lot of variables he hadn’t seen before and he seemed to handle them real well.
“We were a little unsure of what the pace scenario would be. You had horses with speed coming out of other races and ideally we wanted to stalk someone, but he is so naturally fast for a big horse, there wasn’t enough pace to get behind too many horses,” Pletcher said.
“He stumbled a little bit leaving the gate, but he seemed to recover quickly and put himself in a good spot. Once John got him to the middle of the track and got him to settle, it looked like he was very relaxed throughout. When he made the lead, he kind of pricked his ears like he tends to do and seemed like he was waiting a little on the competition.”
Pletcher, who won the 2010 Kentucky Derby with third-place Tampa Bay Derby finisher Super Saver, said Verrazano’s next start would be the March 30 Besilu Stables Florida Derby, the April 6 Wood Memorial or the April 13 Arkansas Derby.
“The way he has finished his mile and mile-and-a-sixteenth races, I don’t see another sixteenth being much of an issue. To come here and get 50 Kentucky Derby points, everyone can take a deep breath and see what happens next.”
Velazquez was impressed by how quickly Verrazano recovered from the early stumble. “He cut himself a bit,” Velazquez said. “I asked him for run right away, so we wouldn’t get left, and when he got to the front I was able to get him to settle. Down the backstretch I had a lot of horse and I just let him do his thing. I asked him for something in the turn, and he had as much as I thought he would. He was running very strong to the finish.”
Java’s War was also impressive, especially in light of making his second start on dirt and first start since Nov. 24. McPeek was also second in last year’s Tampa Bay Derby with Golden Ticket.
“I let them run away from us early and we were way back, but when I asked him for run it was sure there. If anything, I may have underestimated how he could accelerate,” Martinez said. “The winner was gone, so consider this race a major step forward for (Java’s War).”
Winning owners Sullivan and Scatuorchio struggled to find the words to put Verrazano’s effort into perspective.
“If you’re a fan of horse racing, you’ve got to love this horse,” Scatuorchio said. “He’s amazing.”
“It’s always nerve-wracking when you’re a (2-5) favorite, but he validated everyone’s expectations,” Sullivan said. “We’re excited and we’re looking forward to his next race.”
Pletcher was equally as delighted with Old Tune, who added the Hillsborough to her earlier Grade III Endeavour score locally, again under jockey Joel Rosario for owner Stud TNT. The 5-year-old Brazilian-bred mare was a length-and-a-quarter ahead of Forces of Darkness at the end of the mile-and-an-eighth race, followed by Mystical Star. The second and third-place horses were trained respectively by Chad Brown and Christophe Clement.
“I felt like this was a tougher field than (the Endeavour),” Pletcher said. “There were some very good quality fillies coming from Europe, and you always worry about the second time after a big effort her first time in the U.S. She is a lovely mare and easy to train. She is adaptable to different pace scenarios, and we felt like there wasn’t much pace in here so we would let her do her thing. It worked out very well and Joel gave her a very nice ride.
“Mr. (Goncalo) Torrealba (owner of Stud TNT) sent her to me, so we were the beneficiary of getting a high-quality filly. She trains very well on the dirt and is very versatile and professional. We are lucky to have her. We might look at a race at Keeneland next.”
Pletcher also won both the Endeavour and Hillsborough in 2007 with Cassydora.
“(Old Tune) just keeps getting better,” Rosario said. “She broke well and I asked her for just enough to stay in the lead early on. The pace was just right and we were just cruising along. There was pressure from the outside entering the stretch and like last time, I touched her and she showed me another game run down the stretch. I said she would be special this year and she showed me more again today.”
In the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, Curragh Stables’ Manuka Honey went to the lead soon after the start and was never threatened, winning by seven-and-a-quarter lengths under Hall of Fame jockey Edgar Prado.
A pair of locally-based horses, the Gerald Bennett-trained Wild About Irene and the William Downing-trained Cindys Casino, finished second and third.
Manuka Honey is trained by John Terranova II, also the trainer of Sam F. Davis Stakes winner and third-place Tampa Bay Derby finisher Falling Sky. Terranova switched Manuka Honey from turf to dirt for her last start, a head victory going seven furlongs at Gulfstream. That race was Manuka Honey’s sixth race and her first victory.
“What led us to the dirt was she had shown good, high cruising speed, but just didn’t have that quick turn of foot like a good turf filly who could put them away,” Terranova said. “She was always competitive, but we felt she didn’t have that burst she needed to get to the next level on the turf.
“She had a tremendous breeze after her Gulfstream win (six furlongs in 1:12), so it was a no-brainer to go into this spot. I left the strategy up to Edgar. With a filly with that kind of class and ability, you don’t want to get in her way, and you don’t have to tell Edgar much.”
“She just keeps getting better,” Prado said. “She broke just right and in front and I let her relax and wait for a challenge. I asked her for run nearing the stretch and she really responded. We were almost in hand getting to the finish.”
Wild About Irene benefited from the addition of blinkers to finish second at odds of 26-1.
A potential Kentucky Derby candidate may have taken flight in the fifth race, a $30,000 allowance at a mile on the turf. Appearing hopelessly beaten at the top of the stretch, Noble Tune staged a whirlwind rally under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez to post a nose victory from Are You Kidding Me. The winner came home in a time of 1:35.05.
Noble Tune, who has made each of his four career starts on the turf, won the Grade III Pilgrim at Belmont in October and finished second to George Vancouver in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Santa Anita the following month. He is 3-for-4 lifetime.
Noble Tune is owned by Martin S. Schwartz and his breeder, Dell Ridge Farm, and trained by Chad Brown. Schwartz is a 75-percent owner. He and Brown won last year’s Grade III Endeavour and Grade III Hillsborough Stakes last year at Tampa Bay Downs with subsequent Eclipse Award Champion Turf Female, Zagora.
Brown said Noble Tune would be taken to Keeneland in Lexington and breezed on that track’s synthetic surface, with an eye toward running in the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes on April 13. “I’ll probably stay short of speculating right now (about the Derby),” Brown said. “The way he finished today, the mile-and-an-eighth of the Blue Grass should be no problem. The Tampa Bay Downs turf course has worked well for us in the past. All of our horses seem to come out of their races well.”
Schwartz, being an owner, is more inclined to look toward Louisville and the first Saturday in May. “My trainer says turf horses run well at Churchill Downs,” Schwartz said. “I run all fillies, so I don’t get too many chances” (at the Derby).
Noble Tune is a son of Unbridled’s Song-Serena’s Cat, out of Storm Cat. He paid $3.
In the Lambholm South Race of the Week, contested as the second race on the card, Ron Hendrickson’s 4-year-old filly Who Is Camille laid just off the early pace before moving to the lead inside the 3/8-mile pole and outlasting Cheechako by ¾-length.
A stakes winner as a 3-year-old at the Ocala Training Center, Who Is Camille was reunited with Velazquez, who won both halves of the early daily double. The winner is trained by Marcial Navarro. She paid $12.80 to win as the third choice in the seven-horse field. Who Is Camille’s time for the six-and-a-half furlongs was 1:17.68.
The 3-5 favorite, It’s Me Mom, was fractious in the gate, broke slowly, raced to the lead but tired after five furlongs. The 5-year-old mare is the track record-holder for six furlongs, a 1:08.67 clocking in last season’s Florida Cup Hilton Garden Inn Sprint.
Sunday’s 11-race Thoroughbred card begins at 12:40 p.m. Tampa Bay Downs will race four days a week through the remainder of the meet – Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday – with the exception of Easter Sunday, March 31, when the track is closed, and May 1.
Tampa Bay Downs is otherwise 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.