03/03/2014 12:43PM

Tampa Bay Derby: Casse, Pletcher have top contenders

Tom Keyser
Vinceremos, who won the Sam F. Davis Stakes, likely will be favored in the Tampa Bay Derby.

OLDSMAR, Fla. – Mark Casse and Todd Pletcher’s training operations are different in many ways. Casse bases his stable at Woodbine near Toronto from the time he leaves Florida each winter until late fall, while Pletcher is based in New York at Belmont Park and Saratoga once he leaves Florida each spring.

Most of the horses in Casse’s stable are owned by John Oxley, while Pletcher has a number of different owners and ownership groups for his large string of runners.

But one thing the two trainers have in common is a fondness for using stakes at Tampa Bay Downs to test their developing 3-year-olds.

The stakes for sophomores in the weeks preceding the Kentucky Derby are like spring training or boot camp and separate the men from the boys. And on Saturday, Pletcher and Casse are expected to start runners at crucial points in their respective careers in the Grade 2, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby.

As of Monday, at least eight 3-year-olds were probable for the 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby, and it’s likely that Vinceremos, who won the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes for Pletcher at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 1, will be favored Saturday.

The colt will be making just his fourth start in the Tampa Bay Derby, and in his nose victory in the Sam F. Davis, he showed both talent and inexperience, dropping back inside on the second turn, then spurting to a daylight lead in midstretch before coasting and waiting on horses late to make the finish closer than it should have been.

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

Vinceremos looks like a gangling young athlete who is still learning how to focus and put it all together. It will be interesting to see if he is more dialed in when they turn for home Saturday.

The winner of the Tampa Bay Derby earns 50 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby under a system used by Churchill Downs to determine the field for the May 3 classic should more than 20 horses enter the race. The second-place finisher gets 20 qualifying points, the third-place finisher gets 10, and the fourth-place runner five.

Casse is pointing two colts to the Tampa Bay Derby: Matador, who was fourth, beaten a length, in the Sam F. Davis, and Conquest Titan. Conquest Titan showed a ton of speed early in his career and was in front early in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November before finishing last.

But in his two most recent starts, Conquest Titan has displayed a running style more like his father, Birdstone, coming from last to win an allowance at Churchill Downs in his final start as a 2-year-old, then looping the field to finish second in the Grade 2 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park in January in his 3-year-old debut.

Matador figures to be fitter for his second start since November, and this could be the acid test for the Oxley runner.

The race was to feature Bond Holder, who won his maiden in the Grade 1 FrontRunner Stakes at Santa Anita in September and finished fourth in the BC Juvenile. But that horse has a foot injury and "is still recovering from the effects of his FedEx flight," according to a Facebook post by trainer Doug O'Neill. The trainer said Bond Holder was likely to resume training at the end of the week and have a breeze the following week before O'Neill determines where he'll start start.

Other probable starters include Asserting Bear, Coltimus Prime, Hy Kodiak Warrior, and Surfing U S A.

Saturday’s Grade 3, $200,000 Florida Oaks at 1 1/16 miles on turf has 10 3-year-old fillies counted as probable starters, including Interrupted from the famed Pin Oak Stud operation. That filly is slated to make her 3-year-old and stakes debuts after winning her first two outings last fall at Laurel Park.

Babe’s Ruler, who finished second over the synthetic track at the Ocala Training Center in the $100,000 OBS Championship in January after a good win in December over the Tampa Bay Downs turf course, also is expected in the lineup. Miss Besilu, a winner of two of her last three starts for Hall of Famer Bill Mott and second in the Ginger Brew Stakes after starting from the tough No. 10 post at Gulfstream in January, also is scheduled to go in the Oaks.

Parranda will be shooting for her fifth win from her last six starts in the Grade 3, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on turf. The field is expected to include Riposte, who was second to Parranda in the Grade 3 Suwannee River Stakes at Gulfstream on Feb. 8 in her U.S. debut for Juddmonte Farms. At least eight fillies and mares are expected for the Hillsborough.