by Mike Henry

Thoroughbred trainer Arnaud Delacour is certain Divining Rod will have to show improvement from his previous race to enter the winner’s circle after Saturday’s Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby.

The Kentucky-bred 3-year-old colt has been training forwardly since finishing second by a neck to Ocean Knight on Jan. 31 in the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes. The test of how far he has progressed comes in the 11th race on Festival Day 35, the richest day in Tampa Bay Downs history.

“I want him to run his race, get comfortable and see if he can finish,” said Delacour, who trains Divining Rod for his breeder-owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, best known as the breeders and owners of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro.

“He ran a very good race in the Davis and has been training well, and we want to see how he fits against a lot of nice horses,” Delacour said.

Not only will Divining Rod have to find a way to turn the tables on Ocean Knight, he will need to turn back a fresh challenger in Carpe Diem, a Grade I winner and Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup runner-up set to make his first 2015 start for trainer Todd Pletcher.

Divining Rod will break from the No. 1 post position under jockey Luis Garcia, who won the 2011 Tampa Bay Derby on 43-1 shot Watch Me Go. The remainder of the field in post position order includes Ocean Knight; Carpe Diem; Ami’s Flatter; My Johnny Be Good; Great Stuff; Moonlight Bandit; and Danzig Moon.

Souper Colossal was scratched after spiking a fever following the post-position draw.

The Tampa Bay Derby has a listed post time of 5:23 p.m. First-race post time on the 12-race card 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. There is a Super High-5 carryover pool of $3,662.59.

Track announcer Richard Grunder’s “Morning Glory Club” Show begins at 10 a.m. on the first floor of the Grandstand. His guest is Ed Musselman, a native of Louisville, Ky., who publishes the “Indian Charlie” newsletter found at numerous racetracks.

The mile-and-a-sixteenth Tampa Bay Derby is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, a points system that helps 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 winners in 2007 Tampa Bay Derby winner Street Sense and 2010 third-place finisher Super Saver – offers 50-20-10-5 points to the top four finishers.

Festival Day 35 also includes a pair of Grade III turf stakes for females – the $200,000 Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies at a mile-and-a-sixteenth, and the $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes for older fillies and mares at a mile-and-an-eighth – and the $60,000 Challenger Stakes for older horses on the main track at a mile-and-a-sixteenth.

Divining Rod and Moonlight Bandit are the only Tampa Bay Derby entrants not nominated to the Triple Crown, but that could change if they show the right stuff Saturday. The late nomination period, which runs up to March 24, requires a $6,000 payment.

“I think he has been improving all the time,” Delacour said of Divining Rod, who will be making his fourth career start. “We really liked him when he started training as a 2-year-old, and he always showed he had ability.

“If he runs the same kind of race Saturday that he did in the Davis and makes me happy, I think we would nominate him to the Triple Crown.”

Divining Rod is a son of Grade I winner Tapit, who set the single-season record for North American progeny earnings last year of almost $17-million. The colt’s dam, Precious Kitten, was a multiple-Grade I winner on turf.

Divining Rod has been outfitted with front bar shoes since incurring minor quarter cracks in his first breeze after the Sam F. Davis. “We did it for prevention. You have to take a quarter crack seriously, but he hasn’t missed a day of training and has been training in them for three weeks,” Delacour said.

“We had everything our own way in the Davis. He wasn’t pressed that hard after he took the lead, and he was able to kick first. I just want him to break well, let Luis get him in position and see what happens. I’m hoping for a clean trip so we can evaluate his progress.”

 In the distaff stakes, trainer Chad Brown, who has been a frequent visitor to the Oldsmar winner’s circle on major stakes days, appears well-fortified with two strong contenders in both races. Foremost among the Brown-trained lasses is 6-year-old mare Stephanie’s Kitten, who heads the 12-horse field for the Hillsborough Stakes.

The Kenneth L. and Sarah K. Ramsey-homebred will be ridden by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez and break from the No. 2 post position. Directly inside her is Brown’s 4-year-old filly Ball Dancing, owned by W.S. Farish and Steve F. Mooney and to be ridden by Edgard Zayas.

In the 14-horse Florida Oaks, Brown will send out Klaravich Stables Inc., and W.H. Lawrence’s Consumer Credit, to be ridden by Zayas, and Mrs. And Mr. William K. Warren, Jr.’s Mrs McDougal, with Velazquez in the irons. Consumer Credit drew the No. 7 post and Mrs McDougal has the No. 14 post.

Brown won last year’s Florida Oaks with Testa Rossi, who returned to win this year’s Grade III Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes. And in 2012, Brown won both the Endeavour and the Hillsborough with Zagora, who later captured the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf at Santa Anita and earned an Eclipse Award.

The field for the Challenger includes 5-year-old Java’s War, who finished second in the 2013 Tampa Bay Derby before capturing the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland; the Pletcher-trained General a Rod, who finished third in the 2014 Florida Derby and competed in all three Triple Crown races; and the Ian Wilkes-trained, multiple graded-stakes winning 6-year-old Neck ’n Neck.

Gallardo psyched (but not overly) for Saturday. Festival Day 35 is the biggest day of Antonio Gallardo’s racing career. But the leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey is confident he can keep a level head while competing in all four stakes against the likes of John Velazquez, Julien Leparoux and Joel Rosario.

“Whether I ride in a graded stakes race or a $5,000 claiming race, I try to approach it the same,” said Gallardo, who rode four winners today and has 93 for the meeting. “I try my best all the time. It’s fun when you ride against some of the best jockeys in the country, and I feel comfortable competing against them.”

Gallardo has the return mount in the Tampa Bay Derby on My Johnny Be Good, the Eoin Harty trainee who finished third here in the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes after winning a six-furlong allowance/optional claiming race on Jan. 28 by 14 ½ lengths.

“He’s doing good right now,” said Gallardo, who breezed the colt Monday and expects him to improve off his Sam F. Davis effort. “I think he needed the (Davis) because he was coming off a sprint. (The Tampa Bay Derby) is a tough race, but hopefully we’ll do something good.”

Gallardo will ride 3-year-old filly Tiger Ride in the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks on the turf. Trained by Kellyn Gorder, Tiger Ride was a $3,000 supplementary entry by her breeder-owner, Dixiana Farms LLC. Gallardo rode her to a three-and-a-quarter victory here on Feb. 4 in a conditional allowance/optional claiming race on the turf at the Florida Oaks distance.

“I like that filly,” Gallardo said. ‘She just galloped the last time. I never hit her, nothing.”

In the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes for older fillies and mares on the turf, Gallardo will ride 4-year-old filly Maria Maria for owner Curtis C. Green and trainer James DiVito. In the $60,000 Challenger Stakes, he has been assigned to ride 8-year-old gelding Mister Marti Gras for owner Lothenbach Stables Inc., and trainer Chad Stewart.

Gallardo welcomes the opportunity to bring his burgeoning skills to the table. With back-to-back meeting titles to his credit at Tampa Bay Downs and Presque Isle Downs and a third crown almost guaranteed at the current meeting, the 27-year-old Spaniard is eager to check off another career milestone by grabbing his first graded-stakes victory.

“When the right horse comes to me, for sure it is going to happen,” Gallardo said.

Despite getting shut out on Wednesday’s card, Gallardo has 14 victories over the last six days of racing. He swept today’s early daily double, winning the first race on 3-year-old filly Premier Dame for owner SJT Racing Stables, LLC and trainer Antonio Machado and capturing the second on 5-year-old horse Dixie Deputy for owner Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., and trainer Jamie Ness.

Gallardo added the fourth race on 5-year-old gelding Princeapallee for owner Efrain Cambray-Diaz and trainer Tim Padilla. In the seventh, he was aboard winning 3-year-old filly Affect for owner Godolphin Racing, LLC and trainer Eoin Harty.