Updated on 09/17/2011 11:06AM

Region Of Merit struggles to Tampa Derby victory

Tom Cooley
Region Of Merit ($5.20) wins his fourth in a row with a hard fought 3/4 length victory over Aristocat in Sunday's $250,000 Tampa Bay Derby.

TAMPA, Fla. - Region Of Merit kept himself in the Kentucky Derby picture with a hard fought three quarter length victory over Aristocat in Sunday's $250,000 .

Region Of Merit appeared to struggle with the deeper Tampa Bay Downs racing surface and needed most of the stretch to finally get past the pace setting Hear No Evil in the one mile and one sixteenth, Grade 3 Tampa Derby. He eventually wore the tiring leader down in deep stretch before withstanding a late surge from Aristocat. Hear No Evil finished a neck back in third. He was followed by White Buck, Strength Within, Cajun Beat, Fast Eddie D and Popular Groom.

The win was the fourth in a row for Region Of Merit who was ridden to victory by Eibar Coa. He returned $5.20 as the tepid favorite in the field of eight 3-year-olds after covering the distance in 1:44.61 seconds over a fast track.

"He ran a very game race," said Christophe Clement who trains Region of Merit for the Calumet Farm. "At the quarter pole he looked great then he struggled more than I thought he would from there. But he won and proved he is a stakes horse so I'm very happy."

Coa said Region Of Merit did not handle the Tampa Bay track nearly as well as he had the faster Gulfstream Park strip in his previous two victories.

"When he hit the backstretch he lost the bit and I really had to ask and ride him all the way around," said Coa. "In the stretch he gave me more although it wasn't what I expected. He wasn't the same horse today over this track as he was at Gulfstream but I think he's still learning and improving and he won which is all that really matters. And I think you'll see him give better than that the next time."

Clement said he had no definite plans mapped out for Region Of Merit's next start.

"We'll see how he comes out of the race," said Clement. "I'm not ruling anything out but we'll take things one step at a time."

Odds on Ebony Breeze all out to win Florida Oaks

Ebony Breeze proved she could stay two turns and do so under intense pressure when outlasting Dakota Light for a well deserved half length victory in the $150,000 .

Ebony Breeze, who had yet to win beyond seven furlongs coming into the 1 mile and 1-16 Oaks, was hard pressed from the outset by Crimson And Roses. The pair raced as a team from the gate until midstretch at which point Ebony Breeze gradually began to edge away from her early nemesis. Dakota Light took a belated run at the winner in deep stretch but fell short with the bid while outfinishing Crimson And Roses by a head for second money.

Never Fail, Judging Lady and Groomeroma completed the order of finish. Ivanavinalot, who would have been the odds on favorite in the Oaks, was scratched after having won Gulftream's Grade 2 Bonnie Miss Stakes on Friday.

Ebony Breeze is owned by George Steinbrenner's Kinsman Stable and trained by Bill Mott. She paid $2.60 as the prohibitive favorite after covering the distance in 1:45.20 under Mark Guidry.

"She got off okay but not great and the other filly(Crimson And Roses) got a little advantage on her going to the first turn," said Mott. "But we were able to save ground and she proved to be very game. The distance was a concern coming into the race but she is a much fitter filly now than she was the first two times she tries to go a distance of ground and is obviously in good form."

Mott said he is uncertain where Ebony Breeze would run next but ruled out the Kentucky Oaks as a possible goal later this spring.

Straight from Texas upsets the Hillsborough stakes

Straight from Texas set all the pace then withstood a belated rally from the 4-5 Dedication to upset the $100,000 for fillies and mares on the turf.

Straight From Texas paid $19.60. She was ridden to victory by Jesus Castanon for trainer James Michael.

Dedication, making her first start since winning a Group 1 race at Longchamp in October, was shuffled back early and boxed in around the second turn before unleashing a strong closing bid to finish second in her U.S. debut for trainer Christophe Clement.

"She ran a big race and was much the best but that's what can happen sometimes in turf races," said Clement.