Updated on 03/10/2013 12:40AM

Tampa Bay Derby brings Verrazano a new set of challenges

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Barbara D. Livingston
Verrazano has won his two starts by a combined 23 1/2 lengths and earned a 105 Beyer last out.

You can hear the excitement in trainer Todd Pletcher’s voice just talking about Verrazano, his undefeated and still untested Kentucky Derby prospect, who’ll take center stage when making his stakes debut Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs in the $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby.

[DERBY WATCH: Top 20 Kentucky Derby contenders with odds and video]

Despite the imposing presence of Verrazano, who’s favored in this week’s Daily Racing Form Derby Watch, the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby drew a field of nine that also includes Verrazano’s undefeated stablemate Park City.

Other key contenders include Honorable Dillon, winner of Gulfstream Park’s Grade 2 Hutcheson; Falling Sky and Dynamic Sky, the first- and second-place finishers in Tampa’s Grade 3 Sam F. Davis; and the undefeated Purple Egg.

Eton Blue, Java’s War, and Offlee Fast complete the field.

The 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby offers 85 qualifying points, including 50 to the winner, in the new system devised to determine eligibility for this year’s Kentucky Derby if the race overfills.

Verrazano has won both his starts, both at Gulfstream, by a combined margin of 23 1/2 lengths, including an entry-level optional-claiming race going a mile by 16 1/4 lengths for which he received a 105 Beyer Speed Figure on Feb. 2. As was the case in his first two outings, John Velazquez will again have the mount in the Tampa Derby.

“Any time you run a horse like this, you can’t help but be excited,” Pletcher said Thursday. “From an ability and natural talent standpoint, he stacks up as good as any 3-year-old we’ve had at this point in his career. And from what we’ve seen in his races and during training, he’s already done some things that have been very special.”

But Pletcher knows the Tampa Derby will provide his star with a much sterner test than he’s had in his first two starts.

“He’s only run in a maiden race and a one-other-than, and like everyone else we’re anxious to see if he can handle the step up in distance, in class, and the new surface,” Pletcher said. “But I’m very optimistic he’ll be able to duplicate what he’s been able to do at Gulfstream and what he’s shown us in the morning on Saturday at Tampa.”

Pletcher said he expects to see Verrazano forwardly placed in his two-turn debut, as he’s been in his first two starts.

“It looks like there’s some possible speed both inside and outside us, but he’s been on top of 45-and-change half-mile splits in each of his first two starts, so I don’t see him too far out of it,” Pletcher said.

Pletcher said he has nothing definite mapped out for Verrazano’s final derby prep, assuming all goes well Saturday.

[TAMPA BAY DERBY: Get PPs, watch Saturday's full card live]

“We’d love to win the race and have the 50 points, because I feel like it would put us in a good position,” Pletcher said. “And by running at Tampa, it gives us a lot of different options coming out of this race, including the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial.”

Honorable Dillon also will be stretching out around two turns for the first time Saturday. A Tapit colt, he rallied to defeat the Pletcher-trained Forty Tales by a half-length in the seven-furlong Hutcheson at Gulfstream.

“His pedigree says he shouldn’t have a problem staying the distance,” said Eddie Kenneally, who trains Honorable Dillon for owner Joe Bucci. “Obviously, the competition will be tough, especially with Verrazano in the field, but the main thing is this race gives our horse the opportunity to run a route of ground.”

Falling Sky was entered but scratched out of Gulfstream’s Grade 2 Fountain of Youth last month after drawing an outside post. And he’s suffered the same fate Saturday, having drawn the outside.

Falling Sky led throughout then dug in gamely to withstand Dynamic Sky by a neck to capture the 1 1/16-mile Sam Davis in his first start since being purchased at the OBS winter mixed sale and transferred to trainer John Terranova’s barn in January. The win was the third in four starts for Falling Sky, who’ll carry high weight of 122 pounds with Java’s War under the allowance conditions of the race.

“The post position is out of our hands – there’s not much we can do about it,” Terranova said. “Hopefully, he’ll break well and put himself in a good position without losing much ground in that first turn. We’ve got him really, really ready. His last work was fantastic, and I’m very happy to have had a two-turn race over that track. To me, that’s a huge key. At this point, the stakes keep getting higher, and you just have to keep passing these kinds of tests.”

Dynamic Sky has run the two best races of his career at Tampa. He also won the seven-furlong Pasco in his 3-year-old debut, and both that race and the Sam Davis came with the addition of blinkers. Trainer Mark Casse has named Joel Rosario to replace regular rider Luis Contreras aboard Dynamic Sky for the Tampa Derby.

Purple Egg has won all three of his starts, but missed time and several potential races after taking ill earlier this winter. He has not raced since winning the Inaugural on opening day at Tampa on Dec. 1.

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

michael More than 1 year ago
Impressive close by Java's Ware after a bad start out of the gate. Love it and watch out for it when a McPeek horse can close. Good things to come for this one. And a price to break up the three obvious ones.
John More than 1 year ago
Told everyone - Casse horse had no chance - still running - dont ever back Casse in US races period - he cant win outside Toronto
Frank Petro More than 1 year ago
Poor John-He lost his $2 show ticket on the Casse horse.
michael More than 1 year ago
Of course the Tampa on location handicapper gives us the three morning line picks. Absolutely no outside the box thinking whatsoever to get a price. Please, i could pick the three ML faves, common as they are. Give us some info on the others.
John More than 1 year ago
Verrazano - Honorable Dillion 1 - 2 - Casse horse dead last.
Frank Petro More than 1 year ago
Poor John-you lost your $2 show ticket on Casse horse.You'll get him next time.
Jason Kassa More than 1 year ago
Verrazano / Offlee Fast / Honorable Dillon and Eton Blue Verrazano / Honorable Dillon/ Offlee Fast and Eton Blue
John More than 1 year ago
Casse and his Ontario bred horse - dont belong - he only can win at Woodbine - cant compete at SA - tried that for one winter - cant compete in NY - he can only win at woodbine - with high purses and B rate horses. If he moved to NY for a year - he wont make the top 100. He cant keep owners or wives - not a nice guy - just ask his many ex's The favorite will smoke by his horse and open up 10. Casse horse will be at the back of the pack
Jason Kassa More than 1 year ago
Hey Buddy, I want to bet on/against him ..... not marry him.
Kyle Stasierowski More than 1 year ago
Dear Mr. Welsch, In my opinion Verrazano will win the Tampa Bay Derby by between 5 and 8 lengths. The reason I say this is because I don't see any horse in this race that can go with him. Sincerely, Kyle Stasierowski 28-year-old loyal TVG viewer, HRTV Live Feed viewer, DRF Twitter folliwer, and FaceBook friend from Alden, New York
MaryAnn Donahue More than 1 year ago
Kyle ~ Why have you posted the identical message five times??
Kyle Stasierowski More than 1 year ago
Dear Mr. Welsch, In my opinion Verrazano will win the Tampa Bay Derby by between 5 and 8 lengths. The reason I say this is because I don't see any horse in this race that can go with him. Sincerely, Kyle Stasierowski 28-year-old loyal TVG viewer, HRTV Live Feed viewer, DRF Twitter folliwer, and FaceBook friend from Alden, New York
Kyle Stasierowski More than 1 year ago
Dear Mr. Welsch, In my opinion Verrazano will win the Tampa Bay Derby by between 5 and 8 lengths. The reason I say this is because I don't see any horse in this race that can go with him. Sincerely, Kyle Stasierowski 28-year-old loyal TVG viewer, HRTV Live Feed viewer, DRF Twitter folliwer and FaceBook friend from Alden, New York
Billy Spathanas More than 1 year ago
Can not wait for this 3 yo contest. Great race coming up today ! Probally the best race coming up since the Withers. All in here deserve a shot even the Longshots $$. Of all these posts, how come nobody likes the Nito Zito trainee ETON BLUE ! Love the bottom breeding out of a Cape Town mare. Two turns today after the patient Zito, we all know Nicks style getting them ready, easy on them when their 2 yo"s and get them ready at 3. Today is the only and best chance for Zito to get to Churchill on that first Saturday in May, and Eton Blue, after breaking Maiden at Gulfstream has been on my Derby watch for Months ! Will have to step up big time today against a good group no doubt but Eton Blue gets his diploma in stakes company today. Good Luck Mr NY.