03/14/2003 1:00AM

Region of Merit in Derby mix


Christophe Clement is widely acknowledged to be one of the premier turf trainers in the country. That reputation sometimes overshadows the fact that Clement has also had some pretty good success with his dirt runners.

The latest main-track star in Clement's arsenal is Region of Merit, who will make his stakes debut against eight other 3-year-olds in Sunday's $250,000 Tampa Bay Derby. The 1 1/16-mile Tampa Derby is the highlight of the Tampa Bay Downs season and tops a program that also includes the $150,000 Florida Oaks and the $100,000 Hillsboro Stakes.

The Grade 3 Tampa Derby will be televised live as part of an ESPN2 special that also includes the Gotham from Aqueduct and the San Felipe Stakes from Santa Anita. Post time for the Tampa Bay Derby is 5:18 p.m.

Region of Merit brings a three-race winning streak into the Tampa Derby. In his last start, Region of Merit stretched out around two turns for the first time and recorded a five-length victory over second-level allowance competition, drawing away through the final furlong after shaking off a couple of early challengers.

Clement had briefly considered several other options for Region of Merit's stakes debut, including Saturday's $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, before opting to come to Tampa.

"He's a very good horse, and the best part about him is that he keeps improving with every start," Clement said of Region of Merit, who is owned by Henryk deKwiatkowski's Calumet Farm. "But this is not going to be an easy race. They're just not going to hand you the money in a Grade 3 race with a $250,000 purse. There are four horses in here who stand above the rest: Region of Merit, Aristocat, Strength Within, and Popular Groom."

Region of Merit drew the outside post for Sunday.

"Naturally I'd much rather have been down inside, around [post] 4 or 5," said Clement. "But he can do just about anything. I'll leave the problem of the post position to Eibar [Coa]. That's why I'm bringing him here."

Region of Merit already owns a decision over Aristocat in a seven-furlong allowance dash at Gulfstream on Jan. 11. But Aristocat's trainer, Todd Pletcher, is hoping his improving colt can reverse that decision, especially if he gets a little better racing luck in the rematch.

"I'm not sure if we would have beaten Region of Merit that day, but with a decent trip we'd have been closer," said Pletcher. Jockey John Velazquez, Pletcher said, "kind of had to rush him after breaking a step slow from the rail, and then he lost momentum when the door closed on the turn."

Aristocat bounced back from that setback when, like Region of Merit, he turned in a very encouraging two-turn bow. He drew off to a 2 1/4-length victory over first-level allowance company going 1 1/16 miles on Feb. 15.

"I've always had high expectations for this colt," said Pletcher. "He was a little late to get going, which is why he might be flying under the radar screen as far as Kentucky Derby hopefuls are considered. If he should run well Sunday the plan is to bring him back in the Blue Grass."

Strength Within and Popular Groom will both stretch out around two turns for the first time in the Tampa Derby. Strength Within comes to town off a second-place finish behind Lion Tamer in Gulfstream's Grade 2 Hutcheson Stakes, while Popular Groom posted a hard- fought half-length allowance victory going seven furlongs on Feb. 8 for his second straight win.

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