WinStar Farm Racing Manager Elliott Walden had a one-word response when asked his impression of Carpe Diem’s five-length victory in today’s Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby.
Under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, the 3-year-old colt inhaled pace-setter Divining Rod at the top of the stretch and rolled to a five-length victory from late-closing Ami’s Flatter, with Divining Rod holding on stoutly for third and Danzig Moon fourth. Ocean Knight, the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes winner and second-betting favorite, faded to seventh in the eight-horse field.
Carpe Diem completed the mile-and-a-sixteenth in 1:43.60, .49 seconds off Street Sense’s stakes record set in 2007. The winner paid $4 as the favorite and is now 3-for-4 lifetime, his only defeat a runner-up effort in last year’s Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita.
Carpe Diem cemented his reputation as a leading candidate for the May 2 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands while earning 50 points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby point series. It was his first start since the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Nov. 1.
His victory was one of three stakes triumphs on the card for Velazquez, who also captured the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes on the turf on Stephanie’s Kitten and the $60,000 Challenger Stakes on General a Rod.
Carpe Diem is co-owned by Kenny Troutt’s WinStar Farm, LLC and Barbara Banke’s Stonestreet Stables, LLC and trained by Todd Pletcher.
How impressive was Carpe Diem? “I tell you what, he just took off down the lane,” said Troutt. “I was really shocked and so was Elliott. He kept yelling ‘Slow down, slow down,’ because he didn’t want to use him up.”
“When they leave their 2-year-old season behind, you hope they come out like he did,” Walden said. “Everyone who has watched him train said he has been training better than any horse in Florida, and it’s nice to see him put it together like that. He is just a natural athlete and has a great rhythm to him.
“We missed (buying) him as a yearling, but thankfully John (Moynihan, representative for Stonestreet Stables) and I got together on him as a 2-year-old.”
Carpe Diem earned the winner’s share of $210,000 to raise his career earnings to $919,800.
Pletcher sounded ecstatic over the telephone from his south Florida base. “We couldn’t be more pleased. Johnny (Velazquez) put him in a perfect position and he really kicked on at the top of the stretch. It was exactly what we were hoping for.”
Despite being reluctant at first to load in the gate, Carpe Diem was thoroughly professional once he got in. “He has a history of that, a little, and we will continue to work to try to get that corrected,” Pletcher said. “He has a lot of (sire) Giant’s Causeway and (grandsire) Storm Cat about him; that’s what makes him good. We’re delighted with the way he ran today.”
“He was very fresh warming up and when they finally got him into the gate and I got on, he settled down,” Velazquez said. “We broke very well and I took a position just where I wanted to be, right behind the leaders. He rated very well and I was able to wait with him until nearing the stretch. When I asked, he came away very nicely.”
Runner-up jockey Luis Contreras was pleased with Ami’s Flatter’s performance. “The (addition of) blinkers made all the difference,” Contreras said. “This is still a green horse and he is still learning. He was away a little slow but he was relaxed. I asked for run down the backstretch and tried to follow (Carpe Diem). We finished very well and this race will do him a world of good.”
Velazquez is the fifth jockey to win the Tampa Bay Derby twice, joining Pat Day, Richard Migliore, Eibar Coa and Daniel Centeno. It was a record third Tampa Bay Derby triumph for Pletcher (Limehouse in 2004 and Verrazano in 2013) and the first for WinStar and Stonestreet.
Total handle on the 12-race card was $10,587,183.76.
GRADE III, $200,000 FLORIDA OAKS
Quality Rocks turned the tables on betting favorite Consumer Credit, reversing their finish in the recent Grade III Sweetest Chant Stakes at Gulfstream with a ¾-length victory in 1:43.39 for the mile-and-a-sixteenth on the Oldsmar turf course.
The winner, who was piloted by past Tampa Bay Downs leading jockey Jose Lezcano, paid $9.20 to win. Lismore hung on for third in the 11-horse field.
Quality Rocks, now 3-for-6 lifetime, is owned by celebrity chef Bobby Flay’s Flavor Racing in partnership with Brous Stable, Wachtel Stable and the Florida-bred 3-year-old filly’s breeder, Destiny Oaks of Ocala. She is trained by Hall of Fame conditioner William Mott.
“She rated very well, she wasn’t overly anxious and she finished good,” Mott said. “Jose (Lezcano) did a great job. I didn’t really have any anxious moments other than going into the second turn, I could see Jose didn’t go around the two horses in front (Lismore and Distorted Type) – it looked like he was staying tucked in right behind, but he realizes how important it is to save ground.
“He stayed inside waiting for them to spread a little bit when they turned for home, and indeed they did,” Mott said. “That other filly (runner-up Consumer Credit) is a pretty good filly.”
“This is a very nice filly and she just loved this surface,” Lezcano said. “We had good position mid-race and I was able to wait with her on the inside. The rail opened up in the final turn and she really turned it on.”
“It was a big field but we really had no excuse,” said runner-up jockey Edgard Zayas. “I had good position early and asked her for run in the far turn and she responded well, but the winner was gone.”
It was the third Florida Oaks victory for Mott, who trained 2003 winner Ebony Breeze and 2013 winner Tapicat.
GRADE III, $150,000 HILLSBOROUGH STAKES
It was hard to tell who was more thrilled after 6-year-old mare Stephanie’s Kitten’s come-from-behind turf victory in the Hillsborough: a crowd of 10,115 that marveled at her victory, or the 17-year-old she is named after who got to lead her into the winner’s circle.
Stephanie Ramsey – granddaughter of breeder-owners Kenneth L. and Sarah K. Ramsey – accompanied her father, Jeff Ramsey, in leading the winner in, with jockey John Velazquez a happy passenger.
The multiple-Grade I winning mare scored a length-and-a-half victory from stablemate Ball Dancing in 1:49.05 for the mile-and-an-eighth. She paid $4.80 as the betting favorite. First-place money of $90,000 raised her career bankroll to $2,724,104. She is 9-for-20 lifetime.
“She (Stephanie’s Kitten) really ran well,” said Chad Brown, who trains the top two finishers. “Both of them did. It’s hard to run them against each other; they are both Grade I-level horses, obviously, but with limited options we wanted to kick their years off right around now. They’ll both go on to do great things, I’m sure.
“Historically, Stephanie’s Kitten hasn’t run that well off a layoff. She was off the board in her first two starts last year, and at that time I questioned whether maybe she doesn’t want to do it anymore,” Brown said. “Then in her third start, she ran terrific and from there she had a great year. With Ball Dancing, I ran her twice last year and she ran terrific. They have both been training together and been terrific in the mornings.”
Velazquez rode the winner with tremendous confidence. “It couldn’t have worked out better,” he said. “Edgard (Zayas, on Ball Dancing) tucked in behind the leaders and I followed him. I was confident when I asked her that she would respond like she can. Edgard moved off the rail in the turn and I stayed inside and waited for room. When the opening came entering the stretch, she answered and we were gone.”
Brown trained 2012 Hillsborough Stakes winner Zagora, who went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf and an Eclipse Award as Outstanding Turf Female.
$60,000 CHALLENGER STAKES
As a 3-year-old last year, General a Rod ran against the top horses in training, placing in the Grade II Fountain of Youth and Grade I Florida Derby and competing in all three Triple Crown races, finishing fourth in California Chrome’s Preakness victory. “If he hadn’t gotten shuffled back, he might have been able to be first or second in the Preakness,” said co-owner Jack Wolf.
After finishing fourth in his first start as a 4-year-old, General a Rod was transferred to the barn of Todd Pletcher by owners Starlight Racing (Wolf’s 10-person ownership group) and Jim Shircliff’s Skychai Racing LLC. With Velazquez in the irons, General a Rod rolled to a six-and-a-quarter length victory from Old Time Hockey in the Challenger, with Neck ’n Neck a neck back in third.
The winner’s time of 1:42.89 was a mere .06 seconds off the track and stakes record held by 2010 Challenger winner Bold Start.
“John said when he asked him on the backside, he really accelerated,” Wolf said. “Todd will find a good next spot for him and we’ll go from there, but this was a very good effort.”
General a Rod paid $5.6o as the wagering favorite.
“I had never ridden him before, but he is a professional,” Velazquez said. “Getting to the far turn I sent him between horses, and when he had an open lane he just took off.”
Undercard action. On today’s undercard, 4-year-old gelding Tairneach rallied through the stretch to win the $40,000 Festival Day Handicap, a six-furlong main-track contest for older horses run as the second race.
The winner laid off an early speed duel between runner-up Tell Tale Friend and third-place finisher Star Harbour before receiving his cue from jockey Antonio Gallardo. Tairneach pulled away for a ¾-length victory in excellent time of 1:09.46. Tairneach is owned by Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., trained by Jamie Ness and was ridden by Antonio Gallardo, the same connections who won the first race with 3-year-old colt Lord Tyrion.
The 5-2 daily double combination paid $96.60.
Gallardo rode four winners for the second consecutive day and has 18 over the last seven racing days and a meeting-best 97 for the season. He added the fifth race on 6-year-old gelding Momma’s Happy for owner Averill Racing, LLC and trainer Gerald Bennett and the 12th and final race on 8-year-old horse Royal Hill for the same owner and trainer.
Bennett also saddled the winner of the sixth race to move back ahead of Ness, 26-25, in the track’s trainer standings with his three-bagger. The sixth race winner, 4-year-old filly Guchi Gold, was a 14-1 shot bred and owned by Lorna Possler and trained by Bennett. Daniel Centeno was the jockey.
Daylight Savings Time takes effect. Please remember to turn your clocks ahead one hour to avoid missing first-race post time on Sunday.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Sunday with a 10-race card beginning at 12:40 p.m. The track will present racing 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.