by Mike Henry

After winning the 37th edition of the Grade II, $350,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on Saturday, 3-year-old Tapwrit returned to his Palm Beach Downs base in Delray Beach and ate a hearty dinner, exhibiting all the signs of a Thoroughbred discovering how fun it is to compete and win.

“He was bright and alert and seemed very happy and very pleased with himself,” said his trainer, Todd Pletcher.

Displaying a sudden burst of speed on the far turn, the gray or roan colt left nine rivals in the dust, powering home to a four-and-a-half length victory from State of Honor. Tapwrit’s time of 1:42.36 for the mile-and-a-sixteenth race bettered Destin’s previous stakes mark of 1:42.82, set last year, igniting a wild scene in the Tampa Bay Downs winner’s circle.

The ability of the Thoroughbred to uplift people was on full display, as Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners president Aron Wellman, Bridlewood Farm general manager George Isaacs, co-owner Robert LaPenta and numerous other celebrants basked in their colt’s reflected glory.

Pletcher, who also trains Destin and has now won three consecutive runnings of the Tampa Bay Derby and four of the last five, watched the action from south Florida. He spoke briefly with Tapwrit’s owners about the next step on the way to a hoped-for appearance in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands on May 6 at Churchill Downs.

“I think at this point, everything is in play,” Pletcher said earlier today on his way to the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company’s March 2-Year-Olds-In-Training Sale that begins Tuesday. “We all decided to see how he comes back and let him guide us in the right direction. Most likely we’re looking at another prep race (before Louisville), but we’ll take a little time to decide which one it is.”

Last year, Destin went directly from the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands without another prep, finishing sixth. Destin then finished second by a nose to Creator in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (Pletcher said he expects Destin to return to training soon for his 4-year-old campaign).

“It just depends on the horse, and Tapwrit is getting better with each race. He’s still learning how to compete and how to win, and the experience of a mile-and-an-eighth race might give him a better chance moving forward. We’ll see how he bounces out of (Saturday) and see how he trains and evaluate our options,” Pletcher said.

Pletcher thought jockey Jose Ortiz might have been surprised at how quickly Tapwrit accelerated on the turn. “We wanted to give him an opportunity to put in a good sustained run, and he made the lead so quickly. It was a big effort and I think he is a horse that keeps improving with every race.

“It gets tougher every time and things can change in a hurry, but we’re really pleased with him,” Pletcher said.

Tapwrit, who finished second to unbeaten McCraken four weeks earlier in the Grade III Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs, turned in a time .09 seconds faster than McCraken’s clocking, which had been a track record.

Tapwrit was deprived of that distinction by Pletcher’s 5-year-old Stanford, who won the $100,000, mile-and-a-sixteenth Challenger Stakes under John Velazquez three races earlier in a blazing 1:41.75.

Stanford was wearing blinkers for the first time, after Velazquez attributed his narrow defeat in the Jan. 28 Poseidon Handicap at Gulfstream to being spooked by photographers along the rail.

“He has always shown a lot of ability throughout his career,” Pletcher said. “We didn’t want to make an equipment switch off a layoff when he was already sharp and make him too headstrong, but this seemed like the right opportunity to do it.”

The plans are for Stanford to defend his 2016 victory in the Grade II, $1,250,000 Charles Town Classic on April 22.

After earning 50 points for his victory Saturday, Tapwrit is second in the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” standings used to determine the 20-horse field for the May 6 Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs.

With 54 points, Tapwrit trails only Gunnevera, who has 64 points. That multiple graded-stakes winner collected 50 points for his victory in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes on March 4 at Gulfstream Park.

The second and third-place finishers in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, State of Honor and Wild Shot, improved their positions, with State of Honor earning 20 points to vault to 10th place with 22. Wild Shot collected 10 points and sits 14th with 17 points.

McCraken is tied for 11th with 20 points. The Ian Wilkes-trainee returned to training Saturday, 12 days after being sidelined by a mile ankle strain that forced his withdrawal from the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, working four furlongs in 50 1/5 seconds at Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach.

McCraken remains on track to start in the Grade II Toyota Blue Grass Stakes on April 8 at Keeneland.

On the West Coast on Saturday, the Bob Baffert-trained Mastery turned in one of the most impressive performances of the year in the Grade II San Felipe at Santa Anita, drawing away to defeat Iliad by six-and-three-quarter lengths. But Mastery was pulled up by jockey Mike Smith after the wire, and X-rays revealed a condylar fracture in his left front leg that will require surgery and keep him out of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.

Mastery earned a 105 Beyer Speed Figure for his San Felipe triumph, the highest for any horse in the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” points races. Tapwrit received a 96 in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby. Gunnevera received a 97 from the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth.

Three 102 Beyer Speed Figures have been recorded: By Classic Empire as a 2-year-old in last year’s Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita; by the Pletcher-trained One Liner in the Feb. 20 Grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn; and by J Boys Echo in the March 4 Grade III Gotham at Aqueduct.

Around the oval. Leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Daniel Centeno and Samy Camacho each rode two winners today. Centeno captured the second race on Bronze Venus, a 4-year-old Florida-bred filly owned by Beverly S. Anderson and Edward A. Seltzer and trained by Ben Colebrook.

Centeno returned to the winner’s circle after the fourth race on the turf aboard 4-year-old filly Tizwar, owned by Colebrook Farms and trained by Ashlee Brnjas.

Camacho was victorious in the sixth race on the turf with Congrella, a 4-year-old filly owned by Michael Feriole and trained by Reid Nagle. Camacho scored again in the ninth on Alto Precio, a 3-year-old Florida-bred colt owned by Four Guys and trained by Juan C. Gotera.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Wednesday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:55 p.m. The Oldsmar oval conducts racing each Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday throughout April, with the exception of Easter Sunday, April 16, when the track is closed.

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