Todd Pletcher and Mark Casse, trainers of the last two winners of the Tampa Bay Derby, could account for as many as four starters in the race on Saturday. At this point, six or eight look probable on Saturday.
Pletcher, who sent out Verrazano last year, is expected to aim for back-to-back scores with Sam F. Davis Stakes winner Vinceremos and Surfing U S A, who finished second in his most recent start to Top Billing in an allowance/optional claiming race at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 25.
Casse won the 2012 Tampa Bay Derby with Prospective. He plans to return to Oldsmar with Matador, fourth in the Davis, and will also saddle Conquest Titan, who rallied from far back to finish second to Cairo Prince in the Holy Bull Stakes. He ran down third-place finisher Intense Holiday, who returned to win the Risen Star Stakes.
According to a Tampa Bay Downs official, other likely entries include Coltimus Prime, trained by Justin Nixon; and Hy Kodiak Warrior, conditioned by Marcial Navarro.
Asserting Bear, trained by Reade Baker, is said to be likely but hasn't recorded a published workout since Feb. 14. Bond Holder, the Doug O’Neill trainee that wound up in Florida after getting upset during air transport from New Orleans, was, as of Saturday, considered day-to-day pending a workout at the track on Monday.
“(The Holy Bull) was an excellent race for Conquest Titan,” Casse said. “Gulfstream has such a speed bias, it is difficult to come from out of it and win. We had hoped he would break better, but he got sandwiched at the start and started picking it up at the half-mile pole.
“The fact he ran past Intense Holiday in the stretch, and that he beat General a Rod at Churchill Downs (in a mile allowance on Nov. 30) says a lot,” Casse added. “They say you are judged by the company you keep, and he’s keeping good company.”
Casse said Conquest Titan will be ridden by Shaun Bridgmohan. The trainer has tossed out the colt’s last-place performance in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita, in which he attended the pace for the first half before dropping back.
Changing a horse’s running style is never easy, but it appears to have paid dividends with Conquest Titan.
“After the Breeders’ Cup, we took him back to Churchill because what we were doing was not working, and I knew we had to come up with another plan, which was to get him to relax and come running,” Casse said. “We know him better now, and Shaun knows him better. He probably has one of the best turns of foot of any horse I’ve trained. When the rider pushes the gas pedal, he had better be tied on.”
Matador, who won the Cup and Saucer Stakes at Woodbine as a 2-year-old, will again be ridden by Julien Leparoux. He finished less than a length behind Vinceremos in the Davis, and Casse said a mishap at the top of the stretch may have cost the son of Malibu Moon all chance at victory.
“He got hit over the top of the nose by the whip of the jockey on (fifth-place finisher Asserting Bear), and I think that stopped his momentum. He came back to the barn with a swollen nose,” Casse said. “That was his first start in almost three months, and his first time on dirt, and he ran 20-30 feet farther than the winner, according to Trakus, so I think he ran a heck of a race. Hopefully with a better trip and the experience over dirt, he’ll improve.”
Matador worked five furlongs Saturday in 1:03.65, but Casse said the time was influenced by a slower workmate.
“We’ll come in the same way we always do, the morning of the race from Palm Meadows,” said Cassse “We love Tampa Bay Downs – it is a fair racetrack but more important, it is a safe racetrack. On the road to the Kentucky Derby, it’s not just having the best horse. You have to have a healthy, happy horse and that can be a chore, but I think Tampa Bay Downs is a big asset to that.”
The Tampa Bay Derby awards 50 Kentucky Derby points to the winner, 20 points for second, 10 for third and 5 for fourth. The Tampa Bay Derby has produced two of the last seven Kentucky Derby winners: Street Sense, who won in 2007, and Super Saver, third in 2010.
The owners of Vinceremos, WinStar Farm, LLC and Twin Creeks Racing Stables, LLC, would collect the Tampa Bay Downs Million Dollar Derby Bonus if he wins the Tampa Bay Derby and the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.
Vinceremos is named after a therapeutic horse riding center in Loxahatchee, Fla., that serves children and adults with developmental, physical and psychological disabilities. “Vinceremos means to overcome in Latin, and I like both connotations to that,” said WinStar President/CEO & Racing Manager Elliott Walden during a recent National Thoroughbred Racing Association teleconference.
In the Sam F. Davis, Vinceremos dropped back on the turn under Prado, then found another gear late to edge Pletcher-trained stablemate Harpoon by a nose.
“What I like about him is the fact that he gets headed and keeps competing,” Walden said. “And in some ways I wish he would go ahead and leave his competition, because he looks like he has more abilities than they have at this point.
"You go back to his maiden race, he was up a length-and-a half at the eighth pole, and then again when he cut the corner in the Sam F. Davis he looked like he was well on his way to victory and then kind of greenly quit running. So I would hope he builds upon his own experience and improves that running style," Walden said.
Edited Tampa Bay Downs release with additional content by Dick Downey