COUNTDOWN HAS BEGUN TO THE MOST EXCITING TWO MINUTES IN SPORTS

by Mike Henry

Three of the last 15 winners of the Kentucky Derby competed at Tampa Bay Downs on their path to racing immortality: 2007 Tampa Bay Derby winner Street Sense, 2010 Tampa Bay Derby third-place finisher Super Saver and Always Dreaming, who won the 2017 Run for the Roses after breaking his maiden here in January of that year by 11 ½ lengths.

Whether that total increases will be determined on May 7, when a field of 20 3-year-olds is expected to compete in the 148th Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve at Churchill Downs. But the Oldsmar oval’s role in promoting the development of top 3-year-olds could be spotlighted the previous day, when Suncoast Stakes winner Nest is expected to be one of the favorites in the Longines Kentucky Oaks for 3-year-old fillies.

Nest, who set a stakes record of 1:39.30 in winning the mile-and-40-yard Suncoast here on Feb. 12 by 6 lengths, continued her ascension Friday, capturing the Grade I Central Bank Ashland Stakes on opening day at Keeneland by 8 ¼ lengths from Cocktail Moments. The Todd Pletcher-trained filly was ridden by Irad Ortiz, Jr.

The Suncoast, which is a “Road to the Kentucky Oaks” points race, could be in line for a boost to graded status if Nest wins at Churchill Downs on May 6.

The Longines Kentucky Oaks has been won by a pair of Florida Oaks winners, Luv Me Luv Me Not in 1992 and Secret Status in 2000. But the chances of that race being used as a Kentucky Oaks springboard probably decreased when the Oldsmar sophomore filly showcase was switched from a dirt race to the turf in 2011, since the Longines Kentucky Oaks is run on dirt.

Swiss Skydiver, who had more traffic problems than a tourist during downtown Tampa rush hour while finishing fifth in the Gasparilla Stakes here two years ago, nearly made it three Kentucky Oaks winners to pass through Oldsmar when she finished second to Shedaresthedevil.

But enough history, for now. No matter how you cut it, the weekend of May 6 and 7 is going to be a banner occasion at Tampa Bay Downs, which plans to present a memorable Derby party of its own, with no restrictions on getting an early start to watch Nest chase a spot in the pantheon of Churchill Downs champions.

Tampa Bay Downs officials expect a large crowd the following day, the Kentucky Derby being a race revered by generations of fans. Box seats and reserved seating are sold out, but plenty of general admission tickets remain at $10 each.

The traditional Kentucky Derby drink, a mint julep, will be on sale in official souvenir glasses listing each winner since 1875. The glasses will also be on sale in the gift shop, sans beverage.

The track will have wagering machines outside the main entrance to the Grandstand for fans unable to attend the races, but able to make it here to secure a ticket on the most exciting two minutes in sports.

Tampa Bay Downs officials plan to begin their program of racing at noon, about 90 minutes after the first race at Churchill Downs. The May 7 card will be the final one of the 2021-2022 meet, excepting the June 30 program, which is also the first day of the annual two-day Summer Festival of Racing.

Around the oval. Angel A. Rodriguez and Fernando De La Cruz each rode two winners today. Rodriguez captured the third race on Karl Cares, a 3-year-old gelding owned by Bonnie Rye Stable and trained by Derek Ryan. Rodriguez added the sixth, the Lambholm South Race of the Week, on Dazzling Sunshine, a 3-year-old Florida-bred filly owned and trained by Mike Dini.

De La Cruz triumphed in the fourth race on first-time starter Coffee Essence, a 3-year-old Florida-bred filly owned by Omar Morales and Francisco Alanis and trained by Antonio Machado. He added the ninth on the turf with Maintainer, a 3-year-old gelding owned by Ironhorse Racing Stable and trained by Tim Glyshaw.

Thoroughbred racing continues Sunday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:15 p.m. Tampa Bay Downs races on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday schedule through May 7, with the exception of Easter Sunday, April 17, when the track is closed, and May 1, when the Thoroughbred action is limited to simulcasting.

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.