by Mike Henry

Kiaran McLaughlin, the trainer of unbeaten Sam F. Davis Stakes winner Ocean Knight, has confirmed the 3-year-old son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin will return to Tampa Bay Downs for Saturday’s Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby.

The decision by Stonestreet Stables LLC owner Barbara Banke is expected to result in a showdown against 2014 Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up Carpe Diem – owned by Stonestreet Stables in partnership with WinStar Farm LLC and trained by two-time Tampa Bay Derby-winning conditioner Todd Pletcher.

Earlier indications were that Ocean Knight would compete in Saturday’s Grade III Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, but Banke and her team decided his stellar showing on Jan. 31 in the Sam F. Davis – when he overcame the No. 11 post position and a wide trip to win under jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., in only his second career start – made a trip back to Oldsmar more logical.

“Barbara Banke and her team decided coming back to Tampa Bay Downs was the right thing to do, and I’m happy with the decision,” said McLaughlin, who added Ocean Knight will be shipped to Oldsmar the morning of the race from his Palm Meadows Training Center base in Boynton Beach, Fla.

“It’s a kind racetrack, the weather is supposed to be beautiful the next five days and he came out of the (Davis) real well, so we feel like going back to Tampa is a win-win for everybody.”

Ocean Knight has breezed three times since the Sam F. Davis, going four furlongs Saturday in 49.95 seconds. “He is training beautifully, and the nice thing is we don’t have to change his schedule,” McLaughlin said. “We just have to cancel his plane trip and put him on the van. We would have been happy to go to New York, too, but he has already shown he likes the track at Tampa.

“We are expecting the Tampa Bay Derby to be tougher (than the Davis), but we are up for the challenge. We have a lot of respect for Todd and Carpe Diem and if he beats us, he beats us, but we think we’re going there with a great chance.”

The mile-and-a-sixteenth Tampa Bay Derby is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, a points system that will help to determine the field for the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands on May 2 at Churchill Downs.

The Oldsmar showcase – which has produced a pair of Kentucky Derby champions in its 2007 winner, Street Sense, and its 2010 third-place finisher, Super Saver (trained by Pletcher) – offers 50-20-10-5 points to its top four.

Originally, the Stonestreet Stables team was concerned pitting Ocean Knight against Carpe Diem might hinder one of the two from acquiring enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.

However, Carpe Diem, who is trained by Todd Pletcher, already stands eighth on the list with 14 points based on his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile performance and his 10-point victory in the Grade I Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland last October.

Ocean Knight has only raced twice and has no points, but McLaughlin said if he performs as well as his connections hope Saturday, he will get an opportunity for more points in a final Kentucky Derby prep on April 4.

“We spoke about that, and both horses (almost certainly) will run back in a 100-point race in four weeks (for Ocean Knight, either the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct or the Blue Grass at Keeneland, both of which offer 100-40-20-10 points to the top four),” McLaughlin said.

“We don’t want to go to Kentucky just to run in the Derby; we want to have a chance to win. So with the timing of the Wood Memorial and the Blue Grass, the Stonestreet Stables people don’t think it is that big a deal if they finish first and second Saturday, or first and third or first and fourth.”

Other likely Tampa Bay Derby starters include the second, third and fourth-place finishers in the Sam F. Davis Stakes, Divining Rod, My Johnny Be Good and Ami’s Flatter; Toasting Master; Danzig Moon; and Great Stuff.

Another possible starter is trainer Edward Plesa, Jr.’s Souper Colossal, whose 4-for-5 career mark includes three stakes victories.

The Tampa Bay Derby is the centerpiece of a Festival Day 35 card that includes the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks on the turf for 3-year-old fillies; the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes for older fillies and mares on the turf; and the $60,000 Challenger Stakes for older horses.

Entries will be drawn Wednesday in the Racing Secretary's office.