by Mike Henry

The defections of record-setting Sam F. Davis Stakes winner McCraken and Eclipse Award Champion 2-Year-Old Colt Classic Empire have led many observers to describe Saturday’s Grade II, $350,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby as totally wide-open.

That opinion may prove correct, but seven-time Eclipse Award champion trainer Todd Pletcher appears to be holding a strong hand entering the mile-and-a-sixteenth “Road to the Kentucky Derby” points race at Tampa Bay Downs.

The conditioner’s 1-2 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby punch features Tapwrit, who finished a determined second in the Sam F. Davis on Feb. 11, and Sonic Mule, a two-time stakes winner who finished third in the Grade II Swale Stakes on Feb. 4 at Gulfstream Park.

Tapwrit and Sonic Mule will face eight foes in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, which is the centerpiece of the track’s 12-race Festival Day program. General admission is $3 and the first 7,500 paid fans receive a commemorative umbrella.

Pletcher-trained horses have won three of the last four runnings of the Tampa Bay Derby, with Destin winning last year, Carpe Diem triumphant in 2015 and Verrazano victorious in 2013. Since 2000, Pletcher has sent out 16 Tampa Bay Derby starters, posting four victories, seven seconds (including last year with Outwork), three thirds and a fourth.

And although his 2010 Tampa Bay Derby entrant, Super Saver, finished third, the WinStar Farm colt went on to win the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands two races later.

In short, Tampa Bay Downs has become a “home away from home” for the trainer, even though the demands of managing his far-flung operation usually prevent him from attending to pick up the hardware.

“The most important thing is that we’ve sent good horses,” Pletcher said earlier today. “We’ve always felt that timing-wise, the race is in a good place, and the distance is a good fit for some of our horses at this time of year. Plus, it puts us in good position to come back in either the (Toyota) Blue Grass (at Keeneland), or the Wood Memorial (at Aqueduct), or, like in Super Saver’s case, the Arkansas Derby on the way to the (Kentucky) Derby.

“Tampa Bay Downs is also a fairly easy ship from our base at Palm Beach Downs (in Delray Beach),” Pletcher added. “And over the years, it seems our horses are able to handle that track and run pretty well. In order to step up to the next level, you need to do well in this race.”

Tapwrit, who is owned by Bridlewood Farms, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Robert V. LaPenta, is slated to break from the No. 5 post under jockey Jose Ortiz. Winner of the Pulpit Stakes at Gulfstream in his final 2-year-old race, Tapwrit has been established as a 3-1 morning-line favorite by the Tampa Bay Downs oddsmaker.

Sonic Mule, who had a three-race winning streak snapped in the Swale, is owned by Calumet Farm. He will break from the No. 7 post under Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez. Sonic Mule is 6-1 on the morning line, behind third-place Sam F. Davis finisher State of Honor (4-1); Gulfstream Park shipper Beasley (9-2); and fourth-place Sam F. Davis finisher Wild Shot (5-1). The sixth-place finisher in the Sam F. Davis, No Dozing, is 6-1, and the four others have double-digit odds.

Saturday is the most lucrative day in track history, with $925,000 in stakes-purse money up for grabs. Other stakes on the card include the Grade II, $200,000 Hillsborough Stakes, for older fillies and mares at a mile-and-an-eighth on the turf; the Grade III, $200,000 Florida Oaks, for 3-year-old fillies at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf; the $100,000 Challenger Stakes, for horses 4-years-old-and-upward at a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the main track; and the $75,000 Columbia Stakes, for 3-year-olds at a mile on the turf.

Those races comprise an all-stakes Pick-5 wager that begins with the seventh race, the Columbia, and runs through the 11th, the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, and features a low 15-percent takeout.

One thing Pletcher is sure of: Tapwrit and Sonic Mule have earned this chance to prove they’re ready to continue on the road to Louisville and the 143rd Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands on May 6.

“Tapwrit has done very well physically since the Sam Davis,” Pletcher said. “For him, I think the most important thing he got from that race was the experience and education. He got hemmed up inside and had to wait for room, but when he got clear he closed well and galloped out strongly. I think he and Jose both learned enough to hopefully bring forth an improved effort.”

The decision to enter Sonic Mule was made after the colt breezed four furlongs in 49 seconds, the fastest of 20 workouts at the distance, on Saturday at Palm Beach Downs.

“He’s been a model of consistency, whether sprinting, going a one-turn mile, turf or dirt,” Pletcher said. “He gives a big effort every time and he seems to thrive off the action.”

Tapwrit and Sonic Mule seem to have similar running styles, laying close to the pace early before launching their moves. “Coming out of some shorter races, Sonic Mule might be more of a pace presence,” Pletcher said, “but Tapwrit has tactical speed, so I’ll let the jocks sort it out and see how the race develops as they come out of the first turn.”

Pletcher also has the 5-2 morning-line favorite for the Hillsborough in 5-year-old mare Isabella Sings, who won the Grade III Lambholm South Endeavour on the turf here on Feb. 11. Velazquez again has the assignment. Whether she can win going an added sixteenth of a mile is a big question.

Isabella Sings powered to a 20-length lead in last year’s Hillsborough before being reeled in late by two-time Eclipse Award Champion Grass Mare Tepin, but the final margin was only a length and it will likely take a superior horse to beat her. Isabella Sings is owned by Siena Farm.

“It took a champion mare to beat her last year,” Pletcher said. “She has a free-running style, and it took us a little while to figure out it was best to let her do her own thing and run her races on her terms.

“She always shows up to compete, and we’re optimistic she is sitting on another good effort. Hopefully she will settle a little, and that will help her get the last part of the race.”

Pletcher also sends 5-year-old Stanford in for the Challenger. He will be ridden by Velazquez, and guess what: He is the morning-line 8-5 favorite. The Pletcher machine rolls on.