03/10/2015 9:21AM

Road to the Derby analysis: Tampa Bay Derby

SV Photography
Carpe Diem and jockey John Velazquez win the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby by five lengths Saturday.

Grade 2, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby, 1 1/16 miles, Tampa Bay Downs, March 7, 2015
(50 Kentucky Derby qualifying points for a win, 20 for second, 10 for third, 5 for fourth)

Winner: Carpe Diem
Trainer: Todd Pletcher
Jockey: John Velazquez
Owner: Stonestreet Stables LLC and WinStar Farm LLC
Beyer Speed Figure: 98

CARPE DIEM was making his first start since finishing second last fall in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He had received rave notices for his workouts at Palm Beach Downs by Daily Racing Form’s onsite clocker and came off the bench with a terrific performance to serve notice that he belongs among the elite Kentucky Derby contenders.

Carpe Diem balked repeatedly at being loaded, but once the race was under way, he did everything right. He settled into third place along the rail behind dueling leaders DIVINING ROD and MY JOHNNY BE GOOD. As the field neared the far turn, jockey John Velazquez angled him to the three path to go around the leaders, and he did so effortlessly, with Velazquez sneaking a look behind him nearing the top of the lane.

Velazquez gave Carpe Diem one crack right-handed, and he shot clear of the field, and Velazquez hit him three more times left-handed in the final furlong to make sure he finished up well, as this is one of just two preps Carpe Diem will have before the May 2 Kentucky Derby. He finished powerfully and galloped out well, as though the extra distance he’ll be asked to negotiate next time is well within his range.

Carpe Diem won the Breeders’ Futurity last fall at Keeneland in only his second start, so that’s the obvious spot for him to return for his final prep for the Derby. A lot has been expected of him since before he ever ran, being as he went for $1.6 million as a 2-year-old in training at the Ocala Breeders’ Sale Co. sale last year. He is living up to expectations.

AMI’S FLATTER ran on well for second in his first start with blinkers and his first start with Lasix. This was a significant improvement over the Sam F. Davis Stakes, in which he finished fourth behind Tampa Bay Derby rivals OCEAN KNIGHT, Divining Rod, and My Johnny Be Good. He broke a half-step slowly and was in front of just one horse heading into the first turn. He was guided to the rail and remained there all the way down the backstretch and for much of the far turn before going to the middle of the track for his final run while being ridden along aggressively for the final 3 1/2 furlongs. He was no match for Carpe Diem but was well clear of everyone else. Considering he was bred in Ontario, Canada, if this Derby thing doesn’t work out, he’ll be a formidable presence in the Queen’s Plate if he continues to progress.

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Divining Rod bumped with Ocean Knight at the start and then was sent from his inside draw to engage for the lead. He was pressured through quick fractions for Tampa – 23.10 seconds for the opening quarter, 46.65 for a half-mile – got the best of My Johnny Be Good but could not hold off the top two while five clear of the remaining runners. Colleague Marty McGee reported that he wore bar shoes on both front hooves, owing to quarter cracks. Considering all that, this wasn’t a bad effort at all.

DANZIG MOON, who was fourth, was caught three paths wide on the first turn and had to dodge Ocean Knight, who appeared to be getting out. He traveled alongside Ami’s Flatter down the backstretch but could not keep pace with that rival around the far turn. He encountered the slightest bit of traffic midway on the far turn and had to wait a moment but otherwise had a clear run the final five-sixteenths and never accelerated.

GREAT STUFF, who finished fifth, broke a bit slowly, was three paths wide entering the first turn but then was able to drop over to the rail, remained on the rail the rest of the way, and only passed three tired rivals while never getting involved.

Sixth-place finisher MOONLIGHT BANDIT was sent aggressively from the gate but could not keep up with the two pacesetters while three paths wide around the first turn. He was outside Carpe Diem for much of the backstretch while under urging but was through before even reaching the far turn and quickly dropped out of it.

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Ocean Knight, who had won the Sam F. Davis Stakes impressively in only his second start, was dreadful while finishing seventh, beating just one horse. He was on the rail in fifth heading into the first turn but tried to lug out around the turn and ended up in the middle of the track by the time the field reached the backstretch. He was four paths wide heading into the far turn and got within two lengths of Carpe Diem but could not keep pace, and then seemed to come off the bridle, with jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. looking down at his legs in upper stretch while coming close to easing him up.

My Johnny Be Good, who finished last of eight, pressed the pace outside Divining Rod until there were three furlongs to go, after which he quickly retreated. He also was close to being eased.