03/14/2013 1:54PM

Brad Free: Tampa Bay Downs, Verrazano put on a show for visitor

John Duca/Tom Cooley
Verrazano and rider John Velazquez teamed for an impressive Tampa Bay Derby win.

OLDSMAR, Florida – A California horseplayer visiting Florida for the first time did not know what to expect pulling into the parking lot at Tampa Bay Downs last Saturday.

March 9 was the biggest day of the year at Tampa, and an outstanding card included the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby and unbeaten Verrazano. With two months until the Kentucky Derby, there is little margin for error.

But recent Tampa history is on Verrazano’s side.

Street Sense used Tampa to launch his 2007 Kentucky Derby campaign.

Super Saver raced at Tampa on his way to a 2010 Derby win. Who knows?

Verrazano could follow suit. We’ll see about that. March is too soon to make predictions about a race in May.

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

Everyone knows by now that Verrazano delivered in his first route race. On its big day, so did cozy Tampa Bay Downs, a fan-friendly track with competitive takeout rates, genuine customer service, and old-fashioned ambience.

They put 10,476 fans into the track on Derby Day. The place was bursting at the seams, yet comfortable. The three-story grandstand, with a poker room on the third floor, was full. All seats were taken.

Everyone was having a good time.

“Who’s going to win the Derby?” someone shouted. Verrazano looked too fast. He looked too good.

“I like the favorite, Verrazano,” I replied. Pure genius, touting a 2-5 shot.

The atmosphere was festive as track announcer Richard Grunder announced changes. The nine-runner Derby field was intact. And earlier on the card, another top 3-year-old also was scheduled for an important race.

Noble Tune, runner-up last fall in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, was making his comeback for trainer Chad Brown and owner Martin Schwartz in a turf allowance.

“It’s always nice to come over here to Tampa,” Brown said. “It’s a nice turf course and worked for us in years past.”

Zagora won twice last spring at Tampa and later won the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf in fall. For the colt Noble Tune, Tampa was merely a prep race.

“You can’t win the big ones in March,” Schwartz said.

But you can set the tone for a big campaign, which is what Derby Day at Tampa has become – a chance to move toward a bigger goal. Turning for home, Noble Tune appeared to have no shot. He was next to last.

That is when he exploded. Noble Tune blazed the final quarter in about 22 seconds and won the mile race by a nose at $3.

“The way he finished, it looks like a mile and one eighth will be no problem,” Brown said. Next stop Keeneland.

A win in the Grade 1 Blue Grass on April 13 would put the Kentucky Derby back on the table for Noble Tune, even if he prefers turf. Schwartz would like to try the Derby. Brown paused. “I’ll stop short of committing to that, or even speculating,” he said.

In addition to the colt, Brown and Schwartz have big plans for Alterite, a Group 1-placed 3-year-old filly based in France with trainer Jean-Claude Rouget.

“Mr. Brown is licking his chops for later in the summer,” Schwartz said.

Alterite will ship to Brown later this season to target Grade 1 races for 3-year-old fillies, including the Garden City at Belmont Park and Queen Elizabeth II at Keeneland. Stay tuned.

Favorites rule major events

Saturday at Tampa, all the big races were won by favorites, including the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies that Manuka Honey ($4) crushed by more than seven lengths while geared down.

John Terranova trains Manuka Honey, who earned a low 80 Beyer. Call it deceptive. Manuka Honey established an easy tempo setting soft fractions and won under a hold.

The class test for Manuka Honey is April 6 at Keeneland in the Grade 1 Ashland Stakes. Manuka Honey is quick, carries her speed a route, and enters spring as an improving filly that might be better than her modest speed figures.

The best female to race Saturday at Tampa was the 5-year-old mare Old Tune, trained by Todd Pletcher. Before saddling Verrazano, Pletcher put Joel Rosario aboard Old Tune for the Grade 3 Hillsborough, nine furlongs on turf for fillies and mares.

Old Tune ($5) was forwardly placed setting or pressing an easy pace and won by 1 1/4 lengths. It is true Old Tune had easy trips in both U.S. starts. She also has a six-race win streak. Her four-race streak in Brazil includes two Group 1’s. Old Tune is another Tampa winner bound for Keeneland – the Grade 1 Jenny Wiley on April 13.

By the time the field entered the paddock for the $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby, it seemed clear the racing surface would not conflict with Verrazano’s style. Equibase chart-caller Doug McCoy said the Tampa main track this meet has been kind to horses forwardly placed. He was right. Most dirt races before the Derby were won by horses with speed.

The profile figured to suit front-runner Verrazano. In the paddock, he looked the part. He was big, strong, classy, and focused. Verrazano looked like a good horse. After winning a pair of one-turn races at Gulfstream by a combined 24 lengths, this was hardly a secret.

The question was if Verrazano could be as effective around two turns, on unfamiliar footing. Things did not start well. Verrazano stumbled at the break and grabbed his right quarter. Falling Sky took the lead, two wide, setting a fast pace outside Verrazano.

The tempo was quick, not a good trip for Verrazano. He was pinned inside pressing the pace. He was hooked, running fast. Jockey John Velazquez had the chance to get out of the jam and seized it into the backstretch. He took Verrazano back, conceded the lead to Falling Sky, and quickly recovered. Verrazano shot forward to apply pressure, outside in the clear.

“It was a good tactical move,” Pletcher said. “We had the race in our hands at that point.”

Verrazano cruised to the lead on the far turn, kicked clear, won by three lengths, and earned an outstanding 101 Beyer Speed Figure. Even still, Velazquez suggested Verrazano ($2.80) can do better.

“Talking to Johnny, he didn’t think [Verrazano] loved the racetrack,” Pletcher said.

The Tampa Bay Derby was the ideal stepping-stone for Verrazano. Good horses overcome challenges, which Verrazano did. He proved he could ship and win, stay turns, and handle a new footing. Verrazano can only get better.

The win at Tampa does not necessarily make Verrazano the Kentucky Derby winner. He has one more prep race to go. Verrazano is scheduled for the Grade 1 Wood Memorial on April 6 at Aqueduct. He figures to win that race, too.

Total handle was more than $10.1 million on Derby Day, and pulling out of the Tampa Bay Downs parking lot after the last race, it hit me. I did not cash a single ticket.

But I know what to expect on my next visit to Florida. And I cannot wait to get back.