03/07/2015 7:31PM

Carpe Diem wins big in Tampa Bay Derby

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OLDSMAR, Fla. – Carpe Diem entrenched himself as one of the Kentucky Derby favorites with an emphatic five-length victory Saturday in the 35th running of the Grade 2, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby, the annual marquee race at Tampa Bay Downs.

With John Velazquez giving a textbook ride, Carpe Diem drew off with flair in making his 3-year-old debut a highly successful one. The chestnut Giant’s Causeway colt, runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in his final start at 2, is owned in partnership by Stonestreet Stables and WinStar Farm. He is based at the Palm Beach Downs training center with trainer Todd Pletcher.

“Wow,” said Elliott Walden, president of WinStar. “You’re hopeful when they leave out of their 2-year-old year that they come back like this. Everybody who’s been watching him train has been saying he’s the best horse in training in Florida, so it was great to see him put it together like that.”

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

Carpe Diem returned $4 as favorite in a field of eight 3-year-olds when finishing the 1 1/16-mile distance in 1:43.60 over a fast track. Ami’s Flatter, a 13-1 shot, finished second, another 2 1/2 lengths before Divining Rod. Danzig Moon was five more lengths back in fourth in a spread-out field, while Ocean Knight, the 17-10 second choice, faded badly to finish seventh.

Walden said Carpe Diem most likely will have his final prep toward the May 2 Kentucky Derby in the April 4 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, where the colt won the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity last fall.

The 1 1/16-mile race carries 85 eligibility points toward the May 2 Kentucky Derby, with 50 to the winner and 20 to the runner-up.

On a warm, overcast afternoon, and over a fast track, Divining Rod took the early lead from his rail post while pressured from the outside by My Johnny Be Good. Meanwhile, Velazquez had Carpe Diem tucked in an ideal spot from just behind those two, and down the backstretch, he eased out his mount to have clear sailing into the far turn.

Down the stretch, as Carpe Diem surged away, Velazquez gave his mount a smack with a right-handed whip, then three more with the left, although the issue never was in doubt. The colt galloped out far ahead of the opposition.

Perhaps the only flaw from Carpe Diem was his pre-race behavior. He was a bit rancorous leaving the paddock for the post parade, then was reluctant to load in the starting gate, with Velazquez having to remount.

“I’m not worried about that at all,” said Walden. “He’s just a little headstrong. He’s actually a classy colt. He’s got so much talent and such a fluid stride.”

Carpe Diem was purchased by Stonestreet and WinStar for $1.6 million at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales 2-year-olds in training sale in March 2014. In the latest Kentucky Derby futures pool offered Feb. 27-March 1 by Churchill Downs, he closed as the 10-1 third choice among the 23 individual interests.

Two horses have come out of the Tampa Bay Derby in recent years to win the Kentucky Derby: Street Sense (2007) and Super Saver (2010). WinStar, now owned solely by Kenny Troutt, was the owner of Super Saver, who gave Pletcher his only Kentucky Derby victory from 40 starters.

The Tampa Bay Derby victory was the third for Pletcher, who previously won with Limehouse (2004) and Verrazano (2013). He watched this race via simulcast from Gulfstream Park.

After the top four, the order was Great Stuff, Moonlight Bandit, Ocean Knight, and Johnny Be Good. Souper Colossal was scratched earlier in the week because of a mild fever.

The $2 exacta (3-4) paid $40.40, the $1 trifecta (3-4-1) returned $73.60, and the 10-cent superfecta (3-4-1-9) was worth $32.06.

Velazquez, the Hall of Famer who is the all-time earnings leader among jockeys, went 3 for 4 in stakes here Saturday, winning the Challenger Stakes on General a Rod and the Grade 3 Hillsborough Stakes with Stephanie’s Kitten. All three were favorites.