by Mike Henry

Todd Pletcher says the decision to enter Carpe Diem in Saturday’s Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby was mainly about timing.

“It was never etched in stone,” said the seven-time Eclipse Award-winner as Outstanding Trainer. “But from a timing standpoint, it seemed to be the race that would be the best fit for when he would be ready to run.”

Pletcher, who trains the Grade I-winning colt for co-owners WinStar Farm, LLC and Stonestreet Stables, LLC, will aim for his third Tampa Bay Derby victory on Festival Day 35 at Tampa Bay Downs.  A possible record crowd is expected to flood the Oldsmar oval for Saturday’s 12-race extravaganza.

In addition to Carpe Diem, who will be making his first start since finishing second in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita in November, the Tampa Bay Derby field features Ocean Knight, who won the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes in dramatic fashion here on Jan. 31. Ocean Knight is owned solely by Stonestreet Stables and trained by Kiaran McLaughlin.

Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez will ride Carpe Diem, while Irad Ortiz, Jr., returns to pilot Ocean Knight.

Other top Tampa Bay Derby contenders include Divining Rod, second by a neck in the Sam F. Davis, and third-place Sam F. Davis finisher My Johnny Be Good. Souper Colossal, from the barn of trainer Eddie Plesa, Jr., has been scratched after coming down with a temperature.

The Tampa Bay Derby is the 11th race on the card, with a listed post time of 5:23 p.m. First-race post time is 12:22 p.m. The gates open at 10:30 a.m. and the first 7,500 fans to pass through the turnstiles receive a beach towel with the track’s new logo, with paid admission.

Pletcher said Carpe Diem has been training superbly at his Palm Beach Downs base in Delray Beach, Fla., for his return to competition. His most recent of seven published workouts – all spaced seven days apart – was a four-furlong breeze Saturday in 49.57 seconds.

“His works have been very impressive. He has looked super in the mornings, and we are looking forward to him getting started again,” Pletcher said. “After the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (a second-place finish to Texas Red on Nov. 1 at Santa Anita), he went back to Kentucky for a little bit of a holiday at WinStar. He has been training very well (since mid-January), and hopefully (the Tampa Bay Derby) is the first step to bigger things to come,” Pletcher added.

While Carpe Diem’s name and reputation are well-known among Thoroughbred racing followers, that wasn’t the case in 2010 for a WinStar Farm-bred and owned colt Pletcher sent to Oldsmar to begin his 3-year-old campaign.

That horse, Super Saver (who in fairness, had won the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes as a 2-year-old), finished third in the Tampa Bay Derby, returning four weeks later to finish second in the Arkansas Derby. Super Saver and his jockey, Calvin Borel, were at their best three weeks later when it mattered most, rewarding WinStar and Pletcher with a Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands victory.

“The Tampa Bay Derby is a race that has served as a good prep for us over the years,” said Pletcher, whose 14 Tampa Bay Derby participants also include the likes of Limehouse (1st, 2004), Bluegrass Cat (2nd, 2006), Any Given Saturday (2nd, 2007) and Verrazano (1st, 2013) – all graded stakes winners after their Oldsmar appearances.

In an era when Kentucky Derby starters seem to need fewer prep races than ever, the early March date of the Tampa Bay Derby is ideal for Triple Crown candidates who can then pinpoint the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct or Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland (both on April 4), or the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on April 11, as a final prep for the May 2 Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs.

Pletcher said he is not concerned about Carpe Diem lacking experience at Tampa Bay Downs, and it’s easy to understand why. The son of Giant’s Causeway-Rebridled Dreams, by Unbridled’s Song, won his career debut going five-and-a-half furlongs at Saratoga on Sept. 1 by a widening two-and-a-half lengths.

He showed startling precocity in the Grade I Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity on Oct. 4 at Keeneland, defeating 11 rivals under Velazquez by six-and-a-quarter lengths. Four weeks later, he rallied for second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita behind Texas Red, a result that was disappointing but not earth-shattering in light of his obvious potential and the blazing-hot early fractions that found Carpe Diem farther back than expected.

“I think it took him a while to get adjusted to the kickback, and by the time he got untracked it was too late (to threaten Texas Red), but he finished impressively,” Pletcher said. “I don’t think the different surface will be an issue for him. He seems to train well and run well everywhere he goes, and we hope that trend continues Saturday.”

There is no such thing as a “walk in the park” when racing for $350,000, but Carpe Diem’s task may have become tougher with the late addition to the field of Ocean Knight, who originally had been targeting Saturday’s Grade III Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct.

But Pletcher sounds as if he welcomes the added competition. “I know (Stonestreet owner Barbara Banke) had been trying to keep the two horses split up, but the weather got in the way,” Pletcher said. “It doesn’t matter to us. We’re very pleased with the way our horse has been preparing, and you expect to run against nice horses in these kind of races.”

In addition to the Tampa Bay Derby, three other stakes races, each with outstanding fields, are also on tap. Often a stand-alone stakes – and a race that in 2012 produced the eventual Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, Fort Larned – the 24th running of the $60,000 Challenger Stakes for older horses at a mile-and-a-sixteenth, scheduled as the eighth race, serves as a sumptuous appetizer.

The ninth race is the 32nd edition of the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies, being run on the turf course for the fifth time in its history, at a mile-and-a-sixteenth. It will be followed directly by the 17th running of the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes for older fillies and mares at a mile-and-an-eighth on the grass course, featuring $2.6-million earner Stephanie’s Kitten, the 6-year-old mare bred and owned by Kenneth L. and Sarah K. Ramsey.

Friday’s nine-race card begins at 12:40 p.m. Tampa Bay Downs conducts Thoroughbred racing action each Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday through May 3, with the exception of Easter Sunday, April 5, when the track is closed.

Otherwise, Tampa Bay Downs is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action and Three Card Poker in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.