03/06/2014 1:37PM

Tampa Bay Derby: Judge Conquest Titan on company he's kept


Fifty qualifying points and a presumed berth in the May 3 Kentucky Derby figure to come well earned when a highly competitive field of 10 3-year-olds clashes Saturday in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby, the annual marquee race at Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar, Fla.

Conquest Titan could be a slight favorite in the $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby, a 1 1/16-mile race that has produced the Kentucky Derby winner in two of the last seven runnings: Street Sense in 2007 and Super Saver in 2010.

Since finishing last of 13 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Conquest Titan has acquitted himself well against rivals who have emerged as major contenders for the Kentucky Derby. In a Nov. 30 allowance at Churchill Downs, the colt defeated General a Rod, the eventual runner-up in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Conquest Titan then ran second to Cairo Prince in the Jan. 25 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park, a race in which the eventual Risen Star Stakes winner, Intense Holiday, was third.

“They say you are judged by the company you keep,” said Mark Casse, who trains Conquest Titan for the Conquest Stables of Ernie Semersky and Dory Newell. “And he’s keeping good company.”

Conquest Titan will have Shaun Bridgmohan back aboard when breaking from post 5 in this 34th running of the Tampa Bay Derby. Casse, who also will be represented by Matador (post 3, Julien Leparoux), acknowledged that Conquest Titan needs to get moving a bit quicker than he did in the Holy Bull.

“It’s difficult to come from out of it and win [at Gulfstream],” he said. “We had hoped he would break better, but he got sandwiched at the start and started picking it up at the half-mile pole. He probably has one of the best turns of foot of any horse I’ve trained.”

[DRF Live: Get live reports and handicapping insights from DRF writers and handicappers this Saturday]

Like Casse, trainer Todd Pletcher will have an uncoupled entry shipping in from the Palm Meadows training center in Surfing U S A (post 2, Jose Lezcano) and Vinceremos (post 6, Edgar Prado).

Surfing U S A has shown excellent speed in a three-race career and enters off a runner-up finish behind the highly regarded Top Billing in a Gulfstream allowance on the Holy Bull undercard.

Vinceremos is eligible for a $1 million bonus for his owners, Twin Creeks Racing and WinStar Farm, after winning the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 1. The Sam F. Davis did not carry any Derby qualifying points, which led to the creation of a bonus incentive for a sweep of the Sam F. Davis, Tampa Bay Derby, and Kentucky Derby.

Randy Gullatt of Twin Creeks said he and Pletcher have been extremely pleased “in the way Vinceremos is coming up to this. We feel like we’re very live.”

The top four in the Sam F. Davis finished within a length of each other. Among that crowd was third-place finisher Cousin Stephen (post 8, Javier Castellano), who improved over a previous start in which he was compromised by a lung infection, trainer Chad Brown said.

“He ran a nice race in the Davis and came back to train well, so we thought we’d go back,” Brown said.

[Tampa Bay Derby: Get PPs, watch Saturday's card live]

Brown said he will be on hand for what shapes up as a very important day for his stable. Earlier on the card, he will saddle Bobby’s Kitten in a $40,000 turf allowance (race 6); Waterway Run in the Grade 3, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes (race 9); and Kitten Kaboodle and Testa Rossi in the Grade 3, $200,000 Florida Oaks (race 10).

The Tampa Bay Derby follows those secondary features as the 11th of 12 races on the richest card in the track’s 88-year history. The race is worth 85 points under the system implemented last year by Churchill Downs to determine the Kentucky Derby field should more than 20 horses enter that race, with 50 points going to the winner.

As for longer-priced possibilities, Canadian returnees Coltimus Prime (post 4, Gary Boulanger) and Tuscan Getaway (post 10, Joe Rocco Jr.) both built decent form as 2-year-olds, while East Hall (post 7, Juan Leyva) and Hy Kodiak Warrior (post 9, Gabriel Saez) are familiar rivals from the Gulfstream allowance ranks. Also, there’s Ring Weekend (post 1, Daniel Centeno), in off a Gulfstream maiden win for trainer Graham Motion.

“We considered shipping him to Laurel [for the Private Terms Stakes] but ultimately decided it was less complicated to ship him to Tampa,” Motion said. “We’ll find out where we are with him, like a lot of other people.”

One missing name: Bond Holder, the Doug O’Neill-trained colt who is stabled at Tampa after incurring a minor foot injury on his recent trip from California.

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

First post Saturday is 12:25 p.m. Eastern, with the Tampa Bay Derby going at 5:25. Both TVG and HRTV will televise the race, and drf.com will stream the entire card. The forecast calls for a perfect day, with sunshine and a high of 73.