While the sky may be the limit for Verrazano, on Saturday he'll have to contend with more immediate foes in Falling Sky and Dynamic Sky, the top two finishers in the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes.
Trainer Todd Pletcher’s Verrazano will attempt to become the first horse since 2007 to win the Tampa Bay Derby without a previous start at the track. Street Sense did it that year. But Pletcher's done it before. In 2004, he saddled Limehouse for a Tampa Bay Derby victory in his only appearance at the track.
Mark Casse, the trainer of Dynamic Sky, welcomes the chance to face the heralded south Florida invader. Dynamic Sky is following the believes he can win the race with Dynamic Sky, who won the Pasco on Jan. 12 and was a fast-closing second by a neck to Falling Sky in the Davis.
“I think it’s a huge advantage to have had a couple of races over the track,” Casse said earlier this week during a conference call. “Verrazano is a tough horse, and he’s going to be tough on Saturday. But right now, he’s coming to play in our house. He still has to go two turns for the first time and still has to get over the Tampa surface." But, Casse added, “If Verrazano breaks clean and can carry his speed two turns, we probably can’t beat him.”
Casse switched jockeys for Dynamic Sky from Luis Contreras to Joel Rosario, who won last week’s Grade III Gotham Stakes on undefeated Vyjack.
Pletcher said Verrazano has been letter-perfect in his preparations and races. “He trained so well before his maiden race, we anticipated he’d run well,” the conditioner said. “Then he trained just as good or better for his second race. When you have one that trains as well as he does and has run as well as he has, you want to see more of the same.”
Davis winner Falling Sky isn't getting a lot of credit from some observers, and that's okay with trainer, John Terranova II. Falling Sky breezed a bullet five furlongs Sunday at Palm Meadows.
“He is doing absolutely wonderful. I couldn’t be happier with the way he is training to this race,” Terranova said. “He keeps moving forward, and we hope he shows up with a big effort. Obviously, people are going to talk about certain horses more than others. But at the end of the day, performance is what really matters.”
Falling Sky will again be ridden by Jose Espinoza, who has been on a profitable run with Terranova horses. In addition to their Davis victory, Terranova and Espinoza have teamed to win the Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs and the Grade III John B. Connally Turf Cup at Sam Houston with 5-year-old Swift Warrior. Jim Covello owns a part-interest in both Falling Sky and Swift Warrior. Last weekend, Espinoza traveled to New York to ride 33-1 shot West Hills Giant to a runner-up finish in the Gotham -- again, for Terranova.
“Jose has always been a quality rider,” Terranova said. “He is very underrated, and we are very happy to have him.”
Falling Sky is one of two sons of the stallion Lion Heart entered in the Tampa Bay Derby. The other, the Jane Cibelli-trained Purple Egg, is three-for-three in his career, including a victory in the
Inaugural Stakes at Tampa in December. That was his most recent start.
Two other stakes winners will contest the Tampa Bay Derby. Honorable Dillon, trained by Eddie Kenneally, won the Grade II Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream on Feb. 2. The other is the Kenneth McPeek-trained Java’s War, who won the Sunday Silence Stakes on turf at Louisiana Downs in September.
The non-stakes winners in the Tampa Bay Derby field, in addition to Verrazano, are the Pletcher-trained Park City, like his stablemate two-for-two lifetime; Nick Zito’s Eton Blue; and Offlee Fast, trained by Ronald Pellegrini.
Edited Tampa Bay Downs release with additional content by Dick Downey