03/14/2007 11:00PM

The champ is back

Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Street Sense has had six works in the past month to prepare for his 2007 debut in the Tampa Derby.

Street Sense is the reigning Breeders' Cup and 2-year-old Eclipse Award champion as well as the co-favorite among the individually listed horses in Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby future wager. But despite such an impressive resume, Street Sense may not even be the public's choice when he makes his much-anticipated 3-year-old debut in Saturday's $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby.

The Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby is the highlight of Tampa Bay Downs' annual Festival Day program that also includes the $200,000 Florida Oaks, Grade 3, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes, and $75,000 Turf Dash.

Street Sense figures to have his hands full in the 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby with Any Given Saturday, one member of trainer Todd Pletcher's seemingly endless arsenal of potential Kentucky Derby candidates. Even Street Sense's trainer, Carl Nafzger, admits Street Sense could be the underdog in his first start since dominating the 2006 Breeders' Cup Juvenile by 10 widening lengths more than four months ago.

"We're catching one of the best 3-year-olds in the country right now in Any Given Saturday," said Nafzger. "One who also has the advantage of having a race under his belt over the track."

Street Sense will enter the Tampa Bay Derby with 2 victories in 5 starts, culminating with his sensational performance in the Juvenile, in which he rallied from 13th position, nearly a dozen lengths off the lead, to an easy victory over a field that included Circular Quay, Great Hunter, and Scat Daddy. Each of those three has already posted a major stakes victory this winter. Street Sense has registered six recorded works at the Palm Meadows training center since mid-February in preparation for his return, including a pair of five-furlong drills with regular rider Calvin Borel aboard in which he finished with the same awesome power he displayed on Breeders' Cup Day.

"Our horse has done everything right up to this point, and I expect him to run big," said Nafzger. "We shouldn't have any excuses. This is a good place to start. It gives us a race around two turns and four weeks before the Blue Grass. Win or lose, he should get a lot of fitness going a mile and one-sixteenth over this track. We'll learn a lot about our horse on Saturday, and then we'll look for things to adjust and improve on next time."

Pletcher is hoping for a little different result Saturday than in last year's Tampa Bay Derby, when the Pletcher-trained Bluegrass Cat was upset by Deputy Glitters after winning the Sam F. Davis Stakes. Any Given Saturday also won the Sam Davis in his 2007 debut, but will obviously be facing a far more difficult test on Saturday. Like Bluegrass Cat, who went on to finish second in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont, Any Given Saturday is owned by WinStar Farms.

"We're very pleased with the way our horse is training and pleased with his first race back over the track, and hopefully having a race under his belt will be to our advantage against Street Sense on Saturday," said Pletcher. "Obviously we never expected to be meeting the 2-year-old champion when picking this race for our return, but we don't plan our schedule around other horses, and you have to run against whoever shows up. Whether that proves to be a good thing or a bad thing in the long run remains to be seen. I think one thing for certain is that we'll both get a good idea where we stand after this race."

John Velazquez will again have the mount.

Street Sense and Any Given Saturday are the marquee names among a field of seven 3-year-olds who entered the Tampa Bay Derby. The remainder of the lineup includes trainer Nick Zito's uncoupled pair of recent maiden winners, Optimistic Steve and Most Distinguished; the Sam F. Davis runner-up, All I Can Get; Gulfstream Park allowance winner Delightful Kiss; and Lisselan Muse.

Zito says he knows he's facing a tough assignment going up against Street Sense and Any Given Saturday.

"I'm from the old school," he said. "If you don't try, you can't even lose. I feel I've got two decent 3-year-olds, and I'm not sure how good they're going to be, but I'll know a lot more after this race."