03/04/2013 1:48PM

Tampa Bay Derby a major prep for Kentucky Derby

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Barbara D. Livingston
Verrazano will kick off his quest for Kentucky Derby points in the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby.

OLDSMAR, Fla. – Saturday’s Festival Day will have three stakes races on the program, but the one most of the fans at the track and around the country will be most interested in is the Grade 3, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby.

For years, sharp horsemen and savvy handicappers have come to learn that having at least one strong race over Tampa’s somewhat sandy and tiring surface can help a horse get ready for the first Saturday in May.

Trainers like Carl Nafzger and Todd Pletcher have used the Tampa Bay Derby as an important stepping-stone en route to victory in racing’s most famous race, and this year’s running takes on added importance as one of the Road to the Kentucky Derby races, which award qualifying points to the top four finishers. The winner of Saturday’s race will earn 50 points, with 20 points for second, 10 points for third, and 5 points for a fourth-place finish.

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

Verrazano, at 8-1 the lowest-priced individual interest in last weekend’s second Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool, brings an undefeated record into Saturday’s race. He’s a prototypical Pletcher youngster – big, tough, and fast. A More Than Ready colt, he’s been breathtaking in both of his races – a Gulfstream maiden win in January and an allowance romp there in February.

But there’s one problem: Verrazano has yet to earn any points under the new point system that determines Derby eligibility. Many believe it will take at least 40 points to earn a spot in the starting gate May 4. With 50 points going to the winner of Saturday’s race, a victory could give Verrazano the points he needs and permit Pletcher to take a more conservative approach to his preparations for the colt in the next eight weeks.

But while Verrazano will be the strong favorite Saturday, when young horses try new things you never can tell what can happen, and this will be the first time Verrazano will race around two turns. Stakes coordinator Gerry Stanislawazyk says there are seven probables for the Tampa Bay Derby, with a couple more on the fence. Several on that list – like Purple Egg, Falling Sky, and Honorable Dillon – have good early speed, so there could be a lively pace. If Verrazano isn’t up to the task, look for Dynamic Sky or Java’s War to be factors. Both have shown the ability to close from off the pace, and if Dyamic Sky unleashes a late explosive kick like he did in the Pasco, he could take it all and earn his spot in Louisville.

Classic matchup in Hillsborough

The Grade 3, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes on Saturday could well boil down to the speed of Brazilian-bred Old Tune versus the late kick of super-consistent Leading Astray. Old Tune was impressive wiring her field to take the Grade 3 Endeavour here in her U.S. debut and first race in almost 10 months, while Leading Astray, who is 5 for 9 lifetime, had a troubled trip when third in the Grade 3 Marshua’s River Stakes at Gulfstream last time out in her first start since November.

A field of at least eight is expected for the Hillsborough.

Cindys Casino tops Suncoast

The best chance for the locals to win one of the big ones Saturday could come in the $100,00 Suncoast Stakes. Cindys Casino, who was unlucky not to win the Gasparilla Stakes, then lost all chance in the Florida Oaks when she was forced to take up sharply after the start and had her rider’s saddle slip, is one of eight probables in that mile and 40-yard test, which also is expected to include recent allowance winner Carolinaonmymind. Awesome Mind, undefeated in two starts, may start in the Suncoast as well.