03/07/2013 2:20PM

Weekend Warrior for March 9, 2013: Picks for Honeybee, Hillsborough, and Tampa Bay Derby

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Saturday is an important day on the long road to the Kentucky Derby as two of the future book Derby favorites – Verrazano and Flashback – attempt to extend their unbeaten streaks to three in separate stakes events.

Verrazano goes in the Grade 2, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby, the biggest race of the Tampa Bay Downs meet and the obvious highlight on a card that also includes the Grade 3, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes. Flashback, meanwhile, heads the Grade 2, $300,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita.

If that isn’t enough, Fort Larned, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic last fall, makes his 2013 bow in the Grade 2, $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap, and Oaklawn Park offers a Grade 3 stakes doubleheader consisting of the Razorback Handicap and Honeybee Stakes, each worth $150,000.

Honeybee Stakes

I realize there wasn’t a lot of money in the win pool – a total of $87,633 to be precise – but I was surprised Flashy Gray was bet down to the 6-1 favorite in last weekend’s Kentucky Oaks Future Wager. I mean, it’s obvious Flashy Gray has a ton of potential. She got her maiden win by a double-digit margin last fall in her second career start and first outing on dirt, was sold for $775,000 at dispersal soon after, and aired at Gulfstream in her first start this year. That Gulfstream performance was particularly impressive. In her first start for trainer Bill Mott, her first start with Lasix, and her first start in three months, Flashy Gray won with total authority, earning a heady 95 Beyer Figure, even while doing less than her best.

Nevertheless, the fact that Flashy Gray was bet in the Oaks Future Wager over not only such proven stakes fillies as Beholder, Unlimited Budget, Live Lively, Dreaming of Julia, Pure Fun, and Executiveprivilege, but also over the always-popular “all others” option, tells me Flashy Gray has a much bigger reputation than I thought. And that reputation, combined with those overwhelming scores in her last two starts, suggests Flashy Gray will be a heavy favorite in this race. Flashy Gray might be special, and it goes without saying that she can win this race. But this is a situation where I am not inclined to accept a small price on a filly who will be making both her first start in a stakes and first start around two turns.

Sister Ginger is an interesting alternative to Flashy Gray. Sister Ginger was a surprise at 19-1 when she won the Martha Washington Stakes last time out going two turns over the Oaklawn track, partly because she was dismal as the favorite two starts back, a non-effort that can be written off to disliking a deep, wet track. But even though Sister Ginger was a surprise in the Martha Washington, she ran very well. Sister Ginger assumed the lead when no one else seemed to want it and, in view of the fractions of the other routes on the card, set a legitimate pace.

But what was most impressive about Sister Ginger in the Martha Washington was what happened when favored Rose to Gold, who had never lost on dirt, moved up outside to challenge her late on the far turn. The jockey on Rose to Gold appeared so certain that he had Sister Ginger measured that he looked to his right to see where the other competition was. Instead, Sister Ginger absorbed Rose to Gold’s bid, and strongly ran away from her in the final furlong to earn a career-best Beyer of 84. Sister Ginger should be prominent early again Saturday, but note that even though she won the Martha Washington on the engine, two stakes placings last year say she can be effective rating if need be.

Hillsborough Stakes

Old Tune was good winning the Endeavour Stakes in her U.S. debut, successfully transferring her multiple Group 1-winning form in her native Brazil to this country. Old Tune is meeting tougher this time, but she has every right to improve second start off a 10-month absence. I lost a personal heartbreaker with Mystical Star when she was narrowly beaten in the Long Island Handicap in her most recent start because she was compromised by a very slow pace. Still, she showed she is easily good enough to win a race like this when she won the New York Stakes last summer. But I’m going with Forces of Darkness, a first time starter in the U.S. who fits a successful profile.

Forces of Darkness is owned by Martin Schwartz and trained by Chad Brown, and this combination in the last couple of years has had major success with such females coming over from Europe as Stacelita, Samitar, and last year’s champion turf female Zagora. On paper, Forces of Darkness looks a lot like those three, showing competitive form at the Group 1 level in France and Racing Post Ratings that say she should fit comfortably in graded stakes here. Forces of Darkness’s last two works were serious, she gets Lasix for the first time, and I think it’s telling that her connections secured John Velazquez for the mount.

Tampa Bay Derby

It’s probably foolish going against Verrazano here. The way he won his first two starts, I doubt any 3-year-old we have seen so far has more talent than him. But Verrazano will be in the neighborhood of 2-5, he is meeting far better than he has to date, he will be going two turns for the first time, and will be doing so over a Tampa Bay main track that some horses seem to find tricky. For pure value, I’m taking Dynamic Sky.

Dynamic Sky has had bad trips in his last four starts, yet despite them, he managed to finish second in the Breeders’ Futurity and win the Pasco and finish a narrowly beaten second in the Sam Davis over a Tampa main track he clearly likes. On Saturday, Dynamic Sky gets a major jockey change to Joel Rosario, and I look for Rosario to drop back and make one big stretch run, just like he did last Saturday when he rode Vyjack for the first time and won the Gotham.