Shocking upsets. Heroic performances. And, in 2007 and 2010, winners of the Kentucky Derby.
Since making its debut in 1981 as the $50,000 Budweiser Tampa Bay Derby, the Oldsmar oval’s Grade II, $350,000 showcase has provided area fans with a treasure trove of outstanding memories.
Saturday’s 35th renewal of the Tampa Bay Derby will be the centerpiece of the richest day in Tampa Bay Downs history. The card also includes a pair of graded turf stakes for females – the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies and the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes for older fillies and mares – as well as the $60,000 Challenger Stakes for older horses.
While the undercard could stand on its own and deliver widespread attention to “the friendliest little racetrack in North America,” the Thoroughbred world at large will stop and take notice for the approximate 104 seconds it takes a horse to join the list of Tampa Bay Derby winners.
That colt, or gelding (no fillies have been nominated, although they are not precluded), will immediately vault upward on the list of candidates for the 141st edition of the Run for the Roses on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.
What follows is one fan’s ranking of the 10 most memorable editions of the Tampa Bay Derby. This list is intended to spark discussion, debate and happy memories of cashing a ticket on the winner – like this author did in 1994 on the obscure Alberta-bred Prix de Crouton, who cannot legitimately be included in the top 10 but will always have a soft spot in the hearts of his connections!
NO. 1: STREET SENSE, 2007
When trainer Carl Nafzger mapped out his battle plan leading to Louisville for the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and Eclipse Champion 2-Year-Old Colt, skeptics were aghast. Did the trainer of 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled really think he could connect the dots to immortality beginning in Oldsmar on St. Patrick’s Day, a mere seven weeks before the Kentucky Derby?
A then-record crowd of 10,593 and simulcast bettors across the nation expressed their doubts by making trainer Todd Pletcher’s colt Any Given Saturday, winner of the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs a month earlier, the 7-10 favorite. The James Tafel-bred and owned Street Sense was 6-5, and the rest were competing for third-place money (as a footnote, the third-place finisher, Delightful Kiss, would capture the Grade II Ohio Derby and three Grade III stakes as an older horse in 2008-2009).
Calvin Borel came to Oldsmar to ride Street Sense and John Velazquez was assigned Any Given Saturday; both jockeys have since found their way to racing’s Hall of Fame.
The race was billed as Tampa Bay Downs’ version of the “Thrilla in Manila” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. The race lived up to the hype.
Street Sense and Any Given Saturday dueled virtually the entire length of the stretch, and at some point Any Given Saturday might have stuck his nose in front. The pair hit the wire together, but the photo-finish camera showed the inside horse – Street Sense – the winner in a still-standing stakes record of 1:43.11 for the mile-and-a-sixteenth.
Nafzger’s master plan reached fruition when Street Sense and Borel rallied from 19th in a 20-horse field to win the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, the first of the jockey’s three Derby wins in four years.
Street Sense lost the Preakness by a head to Curlin but returned that summer to win the Grade II Jim Dandy and Grade I Travers at Saratoga. Any Given Saturday finished eighth in Louisville, but went on later that year to win the Dwyer, Haskell and Brooklyn in succession.
From this point forward, many of the top trainers in the game began pointing their Triple Crown prospects to Oldsmar on a regular basis.
NO. 2: CEFIS, 1988
Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens set an unassailable record by saddling five consecutive Belmont Stakes winners from 1982-1986. So when Stephens arrived in Oldsmar with a Triple Crown candidate 27 years ago, it knocked spring training and March Madness off the front pages of Tampa Bay area sports sections.
The breeders and owners of Cefis, James Ryan and Robert Kirkham, had named their son of Stephens’ 1983 Belmont winner Caveat after the conditioner, whose middle name was Cefis. Tampa Bay Downs bettors were so enamored of Woody and his namesake (this was a couple of years before inter-track wagering), they made him a 3-5 favorite.
For much of the race, it appeared a lot of rent payments were going to be in arrears.
Cefis and jockey Eddie Maple trailed down the backstretch by an estimated 25 lengths, and for a horrifying moment, it looked like the future Hall of Fame rider might be dropping out of the race.
When the field turned for home, they still seemed hopelessly beaten, eight lengths behind leader Buck Forbes. But the durable Maryland-bred Cefis – who won only six of his 67 career starts, but still earned almost $800,000 – picked this afternoon to run the race of his life, inhaling the rest of the field to post a length-and-a-quarter victory.
Cefis ran in all three Triple Crown races, managing a fourth in the Belmont, and that fall won the Grade II Pennsylvania Derby. That same year, Woody Stephens saddled the Kentucky Derby runner-up, Forty Niner – who would be at the center of the biggest controversy in Stephens’ career three weeks later in the Preakness.
That’s a story for another day (or, you can ask Tampa Bay Downs Publicity Assistant Mike Henry about it; he was at Pimlico that afternoon!).
NO. 3: ODYSSEUS, 2010
The scene in the winner’s circle after the 30th edition of the Tampa Bay Derby was pure bedlam. Odysseus and Schoolyard Dreams had hit the wire together, and the latter’s co-owner, Eric Fein, was set to celebrate a third consecutive Tampa Bay Derby score after winning with Big Truck in 2008 and Musket Man (in partnership with Vic Carlson) in 2009.
When Odysseus’ No. 7 went up as the winner, one veteran Thoroughbred reporter actually suggested the track placing judges had made a mistake. Actually, it was for such tight finishes that the photo-finish camera had been introduced to begin with.
While the Odysseus team of owner Satish Sanan and family’s Padua Stales, trainer Tom Albertrani and jockey Rajiv Maragh celebrated, the jockey on the runner-up, Jeremy Rose, was criticized for moving on Schoolyard Dreams too soon. Rose was only five years removed from winning the Preakness and Belmont on Afleet Alex, and a lot of folks also sympathized with him because Odysseus had managed to lay his nose on the wire at precisely the right time.
Overlooked in the commotion was the race’s third-place finisher, WinStar Farm LLC and trainer Todd Pletcher’s Super Saver, who had finished only a half-length behind.
But the ignored son of Maria’s Mon would find glory on the first Saturday in May, teaming with Borel to win the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands on a sloppy track at odds of 8-1. It was one of only three career victories for Super Saver, but he parlayed it into his current career as one of the most promising young sires in the Bluegrass.
Sadly, Odysseus was euthanized later that same year because of complications from laminitis while he was receiving treatment for colitis. Schoolyard Dreams was retired last year and stands at stud at Double R Stables near Medicine Hat, Alberta.
NO. 4: VERRAZANO, 2013
Thoroughbred racing has changed substantially since the halcyon days of a star like Jack Price’s popular Florida-bred Carry Back, who ran 21 times as a 2-year-old, building a foundation that would help him win the 1961 Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Two years ago, trainer Todd Pletcher brought the highly touted Verrazano to Oldsmar sporting two starts, both as a 3-year-old: a maiden special weight at Gulfstream on Jan. 1 and an allowance/optional claiming contest at the south Florida oval on Feb. 2.
Verrazano won both by a combined 24 lengths, and bettors responded by sending him and jockey JohnVelazquez off at 2-5 in the Tampa Bay Derby – even though the field included the first two finishers from the Sam F. Davis Stakes, Falling Sky and Dynamic Sky.
Verrazano did not disappoint, taking the lead early and waiting for competition that never developed. A 32-1 shot, Java’s War, rallied for second.
His next start four weeks later in the Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct resulted in another impressive victory, but pedigree limitations probably caught up to Verrazano in the mile-and-a-quarter Kentucky Derby, where he faded to 14th after prompting the early pace.
The strength of the 2013 Tampa Bay Derby field was borne out in the Run for the Roses. For the first time, the top three finishers in the Oldsmar prep – Verrazano, Java’s War (who had won the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass) and Falling Sky – competed in the Run for the Roses.
NO. 5: MORGANMORGANMORGAN, 1983
With all due respect to the only Oklahoma-bred horse to win the Tampa Bay Derby, this Budweiser Tampa Bay Derby was more notable for the runner-up.
That would be Slew o’Gold, a son of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew who remains the only Tampa Bay Derby equine participant to be enshrined in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Slew o’Gold was from the first crop of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew and was a half-brother to Coastal, the 1979 Belmont Stakes winner. Slew o’Gold was owned by a partnership that included Seattle Slew’s owners, Mickey and Karen Taylor and Dr. Jim Hill and his wife, Sally.
Off his third-place finish in the Sam F. Davis Stakes, trainer Sidney Watters, Jr., chose the Tampa Bay Derby for Slew o’Gold’s next start. But whether the quirky, sand-based Oldsmar surface proved his undoing, or Watters didn’t have him fully cranked – or Morganmorganmorgan was simply better – Slew o’Gold fell short by three-quarters of a lengths to the Willie Rodriguez-ridden winner.
Interestingly, Slew o’Gold was the second wagering choice in the Tampa Bay Derby, behind 11-5 favorite Victorious, who had won the Grade II Saratoga Special as a 2-year-old but finished 10th in his lone Oldsmar appearance.
Morganmorganmorgan – who had won for the first time a year earlier in a maiden claiming event at Tampa Bay Downs – raced once more, finishing sixth in an allowance at Calder. But Slew o’Gold was just getting started.
He won the Wood Memorial, Peter Pan, Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup to earn an Eclipse Award as Outstanding 3-Year-Old Male, and the following year he won an Eclipse as top older horse thanks to victories in the Whitney, Woodward, Marlboro Cup and Jockey Club Gold Cup and a second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Based largely on Slew o’Gold’s participation, the Budweiser Tampa Bay Derby was elevated to Grade III status for its fourth running the following year.
NO. 6: MUSKET MAN, 2009
From 1997-2008, only one Tampa Bay Downs-based jockey – Jose Lezcano, aboard Deputy Glitters in 2006 – won a Tampa Bay Derby.
That was reason enough for many bettors to stray from the Derek Ryan-trained Musket Man, even though Daniel Centeno was in the midst of an unprecedented four-year run as the Oldsmar track’s top jockey. It was Centeno’s first time riding Musket Man, who had finished an uninspiring third in the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes, more than six lengths behind the winner.
As things turned out, Centeno put on a clinic and Musket Man displayed his talent and fortitude. The chart-caller’s footnotes told the story: “Musket Man was boxed early, was shuffled back when beaten to a hole by Justdontcallmejeri into the second turn, regrouped when swung five wide in upper stretch then closed with a rush outside in deep stretch to be up in the final strides (over major long shot Join in the Dance).”
Musket Man, who was owned by Eric Fein and Vic Carlson, went on to win $1.2 million in his exceptional career. He won the Grade II Illinois Derby, finished third in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and was multiple Grade I-placed as a 4-year-old.
Centeno added a fifth Tampa Bay Downs riding title during the 2012-2013 meeting and is one of four jockeys to win the Tampa Bay Derby twice.
NO. 7: PINEAFF, 1999
Although he had saddled Tejano Run for a runner-up effort in the 1995 Kentucky Derby, trainer Ken McPeek was a relative unknown when he brought Joyce and Roy Monroe’s Pineaff to the Tampa Bay Derby to challenge Menifee – a task one long-ago racing writer compared to “hunting bear with a switch.”
While Pineaff had managed to win the Hopemont Stakes at Keeneland and the Hawthorne Juvenile as a 2-year-old, his reputation paled in comparison to Menifee, who was 3-for-3 when he arrived in Oldsmar and being touted as a probable Kentucky Derby favorite.
Pineaff and Menifee also had to contend with Doneraile Court, a Nick Zito-trained son of Seattle Slew who had won the Grade III Nashua Stakes at Aqueduct as a juvenile.
Despite being the fourth betting choice in a six-horse field, Pineaff had no problem delivering the goods under eventual Hall of Fame jockey Jose Santos, rallying from last to defeat Menifee and Pat Day by a length. Doneraile Court finished four lengths back in third.
While Pineaff failed to win in five subsequent starts, he did manage to finish third in the Illinois Derby, Pennsylvania Derby and Super Derby. Menifee finished second to Charismatic in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and won the Grade I Haskell at Monmouth.
Oh, yeah, that McPeek fellow? All he has done since is win the 2002 Belmont Stakes with Sarava, and train a boatload of Grade I winners: Take Charge Lady, Harlan’s Holiday, Noble’s Promise and Java’s War, to name just a few.
NO. 8: WATCH ME GO, 2011
At mid-level tracks across the country, races such as the Tampa Bay Derby don’t draw much betting interest without a supporting cast. Thus, four years ago, the racing office did its customary scrambling to find rivals for Todd Pletcher’s 1-2 shot, Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes winner Brethren in the first Grade II renewal of the Tampa Bay Downs showcase.
The barns of perennial top Oldsmar trainers Kathleen O’Connell and Gerald Bennett were among those visited. It was no surprise when O’Connell entered breeder-owner Gilbert G. Campbell’s Florida-bred Watch Me Go, who had finished third a month earlier in the Sam F. Davis at odds of 31-1.
But Bennett’s entry, Crimson Knight, was a complete mystery – as in, “What’s he doing here?” Bred for the turf, he had been claimed a mere 16 days before the race by the veteran conditioner from a mile-and-a-sixteenth turf victory for a mere $16,000.
Bettors scoffed at Crimson Knight’s chances against Grade II company, dismissing him at odds of 86-1. Watch Me Go was sent off at 43-1, and as the field approached the quarter-mile pole, most expected early leader Brethren and jockey Ramon Dominguez to pull away.
Instead, the two long shots carried their fight on to the wire, while Brethren faded. Watch Me Go and jockey Luis Garcia edged clear late for a neck victory from Crimson Knight and Ronnie Allen, Jr., paying $89.40 to win and earning O’Connell her first trip to the Kentucky Derby.
The Watch Me Go-Crimson Knight $2 exacta paid $2,194.20 – and all you had to do was box the two local trainers.
NO. 9: BURNING ROMA, 2001
Owner Harold Queen, a long-time supporter of Tampa Bay Downs, reached the pinnacle of racing when his homebred Big Drama captured the 2010 Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Interestingly, Queen’s first Grade I victory as an owner came via disqualification in the 2000 Futurity Stakes at Belmont, when his son of Rubiano, Burning Roma, was moved up after first-place finisher City Zip bumped him in deep stretch – a verdict few disagreed with.
After finishing fourth in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs, Burning Roma arrived in Oldsmar to begin his 3-year-old campaign in the Sam F. Davis, winning as the 7-10 favorite. The Heather Giglio-trainee was even better in the Tampa Bay Derby, giving jockey Richard Migliore back-to-back victories in the race (he had won in 2000 aboard Wheelaway).
Burning Roma’s victory helped re-elevate the Tampa Bay Derby to graded status, a designation it has retained since. And the high-quality performer showed his ability time and time again while racing through his 6-year-old season, winning 13 of 36 starts – including 11 stakes – and earning $1.5 million. He was also versatile, winning consecutive editions of the Tampa Bay Breeders’ Cup Stakes on the turf in 2003-2004.
Now a sire, Burning Roma stands at Prestige Stallions South in Ocala.
NO. 10: SPEEDY CURE, 1991
Call this pick “dealer’s choice.” Sentiment will always have a place in horse racing, which is why this Kentucky-bred makes the list. Bred and owned by Susan B. Fisher, he was trained by the late Harvey Culp, as nice a man as you’d ever want to meet.
A couple of days before the Tampa Bay Derby, Culp told one reporter Speedy Cure was “as good as human hands can make him.” But Speedy Cure and jockey Ricardo Lopez faced tough competition from the likes of Grade I-placed Link, ridden by the legendary Angel Cordero, Jr.
Human hands won out. Speedy Cure drove home the winner by two lengths from Link, and when Mr. Culp died in 2007, the first line of his obituary credited him as the trainer of the 1991 Tampa Bay Derby winner.
Now, had we not felt compelled to include Speedy Cure, the 2008 Tampa Bay Derby would be a no-brainer on the list. The appearance of War Pass – the 2007 Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and Eclipse Award Champion 2-Year-Old Colt – brought out a track-record crowd of 12,746, and War Pass was made a prohibitive 1-20 favorite.
War Pass was squeezed between horses at the start, bumped shortly thereafter and gave up the struggle on the far turn, finishing 23 lengths behind the winner, Big Truck. It was the first defeat in six lifetime starts for War Pass, who had achieved the heights forecast by experts.
Sadly, the Nick Zito-trained War Pass ran only once more, finishing second in the Grade I Wood Memorial to Tale of Ekati. He died in December of 2010; his legacy as a sire includes Grade I winner Java’s War and millionaire Revolutionary.
Perhaps the first Tampa Bay Derby winner, Paristo (who finished third in the 1981 Preakness) is on your list, or you remember 1984 winner Bold Southerner (who paid a record $179.40 to win) just lasting against Rexson’s Hope. And how could Champagneforashley (1990), Wheelaway (2000) and Limehouse (2004) not make the list? …
Well, that’s horse racing, and everyone has an opinion. We can only hope this year’s Tampa Bay Derby lives up to the expectations forged by these past outstanding champions!