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COUNTDOWN REWIND: TAMPA BAY DERBY
By Jeremy Plonk
Date: Saturday, March 9, 2013
Track: Tampa Bay Downs
Kentucky Derby Points Awarded: 50-20-10-5
Distance: 1 1/16 miles (2 turns) on dirt
HANDICAPPERS’ RECAP: An intermediate field size of nine and intermediate distance of 1 1/16 miles made the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby a perfect place to rise in class. And heavily favored VERRAZANO (Todd Pletcher) handled the assignment with aplomb, winning by three lengths and getting an education in the process. The top-ranked maiden and allowance winner in Countdown to the Crown this season, VERRAZANO made the stakes ascension while handling a new racing surface and two turns for the first time. He became the first horse to win the Tampa Bay Derby without a local prep since Street Sense in 2007 and the first horse to extend out from a one-turn prep to win this race since Limehouse in 2004. Both went on to top four placings in the Kentucky Derby, with Street Sense the ’07 winner. The all-important local prep, the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes, was well-represented with its top two finishers returning, and FALLING SKY (John Terranova) and DYNAMIC SKY (Mark Casse) appeared to hold their form in the Tampa Bay Derby.
ON THE CLOCK: What looked like a fast pace on paper turned out to be very manageable as several stretch-out sprinters failed to deliver any early mustard. FALLING SKY went in moderate 23.50, 24.19, 24.67 splits for six furlongs in an easy 1:12.36 and actually gave up the lead before the three-quarters. When VERRAZANO wanted to take over, it was 25.20 and 6.40 over the final five-sixteenths of a mile while widening late. The final time of 1:43.96 rated slower than Prospective last year by 3-plus lengths and a good 4-5 lengths slower than Street Sense-Any Given Saturday in their 2007 Tampa Bay Derby showdown. This race was far more impressive to the eye than the clock.
THE EYE TEST: VERRAZANO had a minor bobble at the start, but picked himself up nicely. While he was a bit headstrong into clubhouse turn, tossing his head about, he allowed a hard-used FALLING SKY to clear and then deftly shifted outside that rival to get in a pressing mode in the two-path. It was a dynamite ride by John Velazquez, but only possible if you have a horse athletic and talented enough to do it. VERRAZANO proved that, in this case, and likely won the race at that exact moment when he showed a talent that superceded his experience and past performances. He also was fortunate that PURPLE EGG (Jane Cibelli) was a half-beat behind from taking that spot or else he could have been in a terrible mess. FALLING SKY was hard-ridden on the rail throughout and never had a chance to breathe and did not lessen himself in this performance. The same race probably would have won the Sam F. Davis all over again. Runner-up JAVA’S WAR (Kenny McPeek) was intent on taking far back from the start and that strategy paid off with a big late run. He made up 8-1/2 lengths from the half-mile point home on the winner. But in deep stretch, VERRAZANO rebuked that momentum and may have actually widened a bit in the final jumps while even geared down, and the winner galloped out best of all to boot. DYNAMIC SKY ran an even and unthreatening fourth, and the jury is out on whether he’s a better closing sprinter as his pedigree suggests he may be. All others in this race simply were outrun, and when several stretch-out sprinters weren’t able to keep pace early, the end result was a predictable lack of closers other than JAVA’S WAR. Only four runners were within 12 ¼ lengths of VERRAZANO at the wire.
PROJECTING THE TAMPA BAY DERBY STAKES FORWARD: VERRAZANO reportedly grabbed a quarter (stepped on a front foot with his back foot) with his bobbling start. Handicappers want to see him back on workout tab in 10-14 days or something is more amiss than first thought. The Grade 1 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct makes all the sense in terms of timing and travel for his final Derby prep. JAVA WAR likely will head to Dubai and take on Southern Hemisphere 4-year-olds in the UAE Derby on March 30, a race that also is expected to include He’s Had Enough (Doug O’Neill). FALLING SKY appears pointed to the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby in what looks to be a smart fit as speed can do very well in that race historically. DYNAMIC SKY may deserve one more shot back on the trail, but what stablemate Uncaptured (Mark Casse) does in the Grade 3 Spiral may dictate whether or not the connections press on the trail with DYNAMIC SKY. He would be a dynamite fit for the Grade 3 Lexington at Keeneland if they wish to continue around two turns, or the Grade 3 Derby Trial if returned to a single bend.