Updated on 09/17/2011 11:05AM

Region of Merit tops derby

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The Tampa Bay Derby will be the stakes debut of Region of Merit, who has won his last three starts including a pair of allowance races at Gulfstream.

Region of Merit will head a field of eight or nine 3-year-olds in Sunday's $250,000 Tampa Bay Derby, the marquee race at Tampa Bay Downs. Sunday's 13-race card will also include the $150,000 Florida Oaks and the $100,000 Hillsboro Stakes on the turf.

This year's Tampa Derby will be the richest ever. It will also carry graded status for the second consecutive year, meaning any purse money won in the Grade 3 race can be used toward eligibility should the field for the Kentucky Derby oversubscribe.

Along with Region of Merit, those entered for the Tampa Derby are expected to include Aristocat, Senor Swinger, Strength Within, White Buck, Hear No Evil, Fast Eddie D, Freedom Lane, and possibly Nacheezmo. Senor Swinger was entered in Saturday's Grade 1 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and trainer Mickey Goldfine said he was using the Tampa Derby as a backup in case it rained and the Gulfstream track did not meet his satisfaction for the Florida Derby.

Both the Tampa Derby and the Oaks will be drawn Thursday evening. The derby will be broadcast live on ESPN2 at 5:18 p.m. Sunday during a show that will also include the Gotham from Aqueduct and San Felipe from Santa Anita.

The Tampa Derby will be the stakes debut of Region of Merit, who has won his last three starts including a pair of allowance races at Gulfstream. Eibar Coa will ride him for trainer Christophe Clement.

"I had considered entering my horse in the Florida Derby, but since he's never run in a stakes before it made more sense to go to Tampa for the first one," Clement said on Wednesday.

Aristocat was second behind Region of Merit in a first-level allowance race going seven furlongs at Gulfstream on Jan. 11. He followed that with an easy allowance victory when stretched around two turns for the first time five weeks later.

Strength Within makes his two-turn debut after finishing second behind Lion Tamer in the Grade 2 Hutcheson Stakes.

Trainer H. James Bond said he would likely enter Nacheezmo and "see who is going that way" before making a final decision on his starting status for the Tampa Derby.

Ivanavinalot, a multiple stakes winner, will be the odds-on favorite to win the Oaks if she starts. Trainer Kathleen O'Connell entered her in Friday's Grade 2 Bonnie Miss Stakes at Gulfstream, and along with owner-breeder Gil Campbell will assess the fields for both races before deciding on the filly's destination. Two others entered for the Bonnie Miss, Spin Control and Ebony Breeze, are also expected to cross-enter in the Oaks.

Crimson and Roses, Dakota Light, Never Fail, and Just Bill Me are all considered likely starters for the Oaks.