With his dominating three-length victory in Saturday’s Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby, Verrazano earned 50 points in the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” point standings, vaulting into a first-place tie and virtually assuring himself a spot in the Run for the Roses on May 4 at Churchill Downs.
Ive Struck a Nerve, the upset winner of the Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on Feb. 23, had led the standings with 51 points, but was taken off the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands trail after sustaining an ankle injury during a Saturday morning workout.
Trainer Todd Pletcher said Verrazano’s next start could come in the Besilu Stables Florida Derby on March 30 at Gulfstream, the Wood Memorial on April 6 at Aqueduct or the Arkansas Derby on April 13 at Oaklawn.
Second-place Tampa Bay Derby finisher Java’s War earned 20 points to climb to eighth place with 22 points. Falling Sky, the third-place finisher and previously the winner of the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, picked up 10 points and is tied for ninth with 20. Dynamic Sky received five points for fourth and is 13th with 13.
Verrazano’s time of 1:43.96 for the mile-and-a-sixteenth earned him a preliminary Beyer Speed Figure of 101 – below the 105 he earned for a one-turn, one-mile allowance/optional claiming victory at Gulfstream on Feb. 2, but still laudatory considering the circumstances.
In addition to racing around two turns and facing stakes competition for the first time, Verrazano stumbled at the break, grabbing a quarter on his right front leg and opening a small cut.
He recovered in a flash under his Hall of Fame jockey, John Velazquez, and by the time the field headed up the backstretch was in prime striking position outside Falling Sky. They traded the lead for a spell, but most observers had the expectation Verrazano could take the lead at will and he did so for good approaching the far turn.
Pletcher said he did not anticipate the grabbed quarter would impede Verrazano’s training.
Java’s War took advantage of a relatively quick pace to rally from last place for second, while never posing a threat to Verrazano. Falling Sky held on well for third.
Falling Sky’s connections were not discouraged by the outcome. “Obviously, Verrazano looks to be very strong, and we went toe-to-toe with him quite a way,” said trainer John Terranova II. “Falling Sky came out of the race great, and now we’re going to put our heads together and figure out a plan for his next start. The Arkansas Derby is a good possibility, but it still isn’t etched in stone.”
And if that entails meeting Verrazano again? “We certainly hope we’re going in the same direction as him,” Terranova said.
Jockey Jose Espinoza, while acknowledging Verrazano was the best horse in the race, said he would welcome another shot at the de facto Kentucky Derby favorite. “We had about the same kind of trip as we had in the Sam F. Davis, but this time I had company early,” Espinoza said.
“I knew (Velazquez) was on the best horse, but I just tried to make my horse run the best race he could. (Verrazano) had a perfect trip; he was on the outside and ran free all the way. I had the pressure because I was on the inside. I think with a better post position (Falling Sky broke from the outside No. 9 post), he’s going to be better next time.
“I can’t wait to race against Verrazano again, with him looking like the best horse in the country,” Espinoza added.
Kenneth McPeek, the trainer of Java’s War, and jockey Willie Martinez found much to like from their colt’s effort. The Tampa Bay Derby was only his second race on dirt, and his first taste of competition since a sixth-place finish in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes Nov. 24 at Churchill Downs.
McPeek had told the audience at Saturday’s Morning Glory Club Show not to leave Java’s War off their tickets. His rally under jockey Willie Martinez was strong and visually impressive, but he was barely cutting into Verrazano’s lead down the lane.
“No complaints,” said McPeek, who indicated Java’s War’s next start would likely occur in the UAE Derby on March 30 at Meydan in Dubai or the Toyota Blue Grass on April 13 at Keeneland. Martinez expects to travel to Dubai the final weekend of March to ride Eclipse Award-winning sprinter Trinniberg on the Dubai World Cup card.
The Tampa Bay Derby was Martinez’s first time on Java’s War. “I was surprised at how small a horse he is, but when I called on him down the backside he was puffing up like a big horse and gave me that spurt. If everything stays in good order, he is going to be a horse to watch for,” Martinez said.
“Obviously, we were very happy with his effort. There is no telling at this point what kind of horse Verrazano is; before the race, I said he would either win by a mile or get beat by a mile, because you never know about a horse coming to run on this surface for the first time. He showed his true talent and it looks like he is the best 3-year-old in the country right now, but you never know what May will bring,” Martinez added.
Here are the current top-20-plus horses in the standings:
Verrazano, 50; Orb, 50; Vyjack, 50; Hear The Ghost, 50; Flashback, 30; Goldencents, 29; Shanghai Bobby, 24; Java’s War, 22; Falling Sky, 20; West Hills Giant, 20; Code West, 20; Oxbow, 16; Dynamic Sky, 13; Speak Logistics 11; Itsmyluckyday, 10; Overanalyze, 10; Uncaptured, 10; Den’s Legacy, 10; Power Broker, 10; Super Ninety Nine, 10; Will Take Charge, 10; Revolutionary, 10; Elnaawi, 10; Palace Malice, 10; Tiz A Minister, 10.
Trainer Monte Thomas saddled two winners on Sunday’s card from two starters. Thomas won the third race, a seven-furlong maiden claiming affair, with SCF, Inc.’s 3-year-old filly Retsina, who was making her first start. Antonio Gallardo rode the winner.
Thomas was back in the winner’s circle after the ninth race, the Cody’s Original Roadhouse Race of the Week, with 5-year-old gelding El Uno from his own Ups and Downs Racing outfit. Fernando De La Cruz rode El Uno to victory in the one-mile turf claiming race.
Ronnie Allen, Jr., rode two winners Sunday, giving him 41 for the meet, currently in fourth place. Allen scored in the fourth race on maiden claiming 4-year-old filly Lead With the Left for owner Sundance Thoroughbreds and trainer Gerald Bennett. The veteran reinsman came right back in the fifth, a six-furlong claiming event, on 4-year-old filly Starmy for owner Frank Mayfield, Jr., and trainer Wayne Minnock.
Trainer Jamie Ness and jockey Daniel Centeno extended their leads in the standings by teaming up to win the eighth race, a six-furlong claiming contest, with 5-year-old gelding Standing O. Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., is the owner. Centeno has ridden 62 winners and Ness has 37 victories, while Rich and Karen Papiese’s Midwest operation leads the owner standings with 37 victories.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes on Wednesday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:40 p.m. The track is open every day except Easter Sunday, March 31 for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.