DREAM AROUND THE CLOCK: KENTUCKY DERBY FAST APPROACHING

by Mike Henry

Plans are underway for the Oldsmar oval’s annual Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands celebration on Saturday, May 6, when a field of 20 3-year-olds is expected to line up for the 143rd edition of the world’s most famous race.

The Longines Kentucky Oaks for 3-year-old fillies is Friday, May 5. First-race post time at Churchill Downs both days is 10:30 a.m., and the gates at Tampa Bay Downs will open at 10, with a full card of racing each day preceding the big events in Louisville.

Mint juleps will be on sale at Tampa Bay Downs in Kentucky Derby souvenir glasses. The glasses will also be on sale (minus beverage) for $6 in the gift shop. Fans can also expect to see the latest in haute couture, including a wide array of memorable hats, dresses and ties, as race-goers enjoy the numerous traditions that make Kentucky Derby Day what it is.

As an added bonus, Sunday, May 8 is Fan Appreciation Day at Tampa Bay Downs. Grandstand admission is free and hot dogs, sodas and 12-ounce beers cost $1.50 from noon-3 p.m.

The Run for the Roses has been won on two occasions by horses that campaigned here earlier in their sophomore campaigns. In 2007, Street Sense, trained by Carl Nafzger and ridden by Calvin Borel, used a thrilling nose victory from Any Given Saturday in the (then)-Grade III Tampa Bay Derby as a springboard to glory on May 5.

Three years later, Borel struck again, guiding Super Saver up the rail through the stretch to reward trainer Todd Pletcher with his lone Kentucky Derby victory. Super Saver had finished third in the Tampa Bay Derby.

The chance of a third horse advancing from Tampa Bay Downs to the Churchill Downs winner’s circle in three weeks is a subject for a water-cooler debate, but at least three likely Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands starters have competed here and all three posted victories on an Oldsmar track surface many consider similar to Churchill’s.

Always Dreaming, a Pletcher trainee who is currently ranked No. 1 among Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands contenders by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Daily Racing Form and BloodHorse.com , has an unusual connection to Tampa Bay Downs for a Triple Crown candidate, breaking his maiden here on Jan. 25 by 11 ½ lengths going a distance of a mile-and-40 yards under jockey John Velazquez.

Always Dreaming won a mile-and-an-eighth allowance/optional claiming event on March 4 at Gulfstream Park in his next start by four lengths, followed by an Xpressbet Florida Derby victory on April 1 by a widening five lengths, showing all signs he is peaking at precisely the right time for his shot at racing immortality.

Meanwhile, the horses that won Tampa Bay Downs’ showcase events for 3-year-olds, the Grade II Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby and the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes, also appear headed for the May 6 sophomore showdown.

After winning the Sam F. Davis on Feb. 11 with an explosive move on the far turn under jockey Brian Hernandez, Jr., McCraken was being pointed toward the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby before incurring an ankle strain that pushed back his preparations.

Trainer Ian Wilkes – an assistant to Nafzger 10 years ago with Street Sense – chose last week’s Grade II Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland for McCraken’s return. A third-place finish behind 31-1 shot winner Irap and Practical Joke was McCraken’s first defeat in five starts and may have dimmed the enthusiasm of some supporters, while others reminded their friends that Street Sense finished second in the 2007 Toyota Blue Grass.

The Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby winner, Tapwrit, turned in a disappointing performance for Pletcher and jockey Jose Ortiz in the Toyota Blue Grass, finishing fifth while never a factor. His stock has plummeted among the “experts” – most of whom are quick to acknowledge that their expertise counts for less in the Run for the Roses than in any other race.

Around the oval. The old saying “honesty is the best policy” was borne out again by Cammack, a 7-year-old gelding who won the fourth race, a 1-mile starter/optional claiming turf event for older horses. The hard-trying Illinois-bred, a multiple stakes winner, won by a length-and-three-quarters in the fine time of 1:35.07 under jockey Daniel Centeno.

Now 10-for-26 lifetime, Cammack surpassed the $300,000 mark in career earnings with the victory. He races for breeder-owner Team Block and is trained by Chris Block.

The Hampton Inn & Suites Jockey of the Month, Jose Ferrer, rode two winners, both on the turf. He was aboard 7-year-old horse Black Stash in the sixth race for owner Mila Mullens and trainer Dennis Ward. Ferrer added the eighth race on Thrice, a 3-year-old filly owned by Catherine M. Wills and trained by Arnaud Delacour.

Edwin Gonzalez also rode two winners, both on the turf. He captured the second race on R Way to Escape, a 3-year-old filly owned by Averill Racing, Silver Oak Stable and CCF Racing Stable and trained by Gerald Bennett. Gonzalez added the ninth and final race on 7-year-old Florida-bred mare Scorpion Aly for owner HANNEMM and trainer Mandy Ness.

Scorpion Aly was claimed from the race by owner-trainer John Rigattieri.

Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Wednesday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:25 p.m. The track conducts racing each Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday through the May 6-7 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands weekend with the exception of Easter Sunday, April 16, when the track is closed, and May 3.

Otherwise, the Oldsmar oval 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.