OLDSMAR — The Tampa Bay Derby has become known for its heavy favorites — how they succeed, or how they succumb to the increasing pressure of the Kentucky Derby trail.
But the 34th Tampa Bay Derby, today’s Festival Day feature at Tampa Bay Downs, promises an entirely different storyline.
In this field of 10 3-year olds, there isn’t an overwhelming favorite. The winner, however, will instantly qualify for the Run for the Roses on May 3 at Churchill Downs.
It is a group that includes no local horses, but plenty of representation from some of North America’s top thoroughbred trainers. The trainer of 2012 Tampa Bay Derby winner Prospective, Mark Casse, and 2013 winner Verrazano, Todd Pletcher, have two entries apiece. Graham Motion and Chad Brown also have entries.
Casse has perhaps the most intriguing horse in Conquest Titan, the runner-up in last month’s Grade II Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Conquest Titan’s stock rose two weeks ago when one of the horses it beat in that race, Intense Holiday, won the Risen Star Stakes impressively.
“I think you’re judged by the company you keep,” Casse said, “and we seem to be keeping some pretty good company.”
Casse passed on entering Conquest Titan in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream because of bad timing, but he thinks he will be fine on Tampa’s sandy dirt track.
“There’s always a concern at running at Tampa Bay,” Casse said. “Sometimes horses don’t like it. We’ve found over the last few years, though, horses that train well at Palm Meadows normally run fairly well at Tampa.”
Casse also saddles Matador, which finished fourth in last month’s Sam F. Davis Stakes in Oldsmar. Matador was hit on the nose by the stick of another jockey in that race and appeared momentarily stunned at the top of the stretch.
Pletcher, who like Casse keeps his Florida base at Palm Meadows, has his own intriguing entries in Vinceremos, the long-shot winner of the Davis, and Surfing U S A, today’s morning-line betting favorite and a horse that has shown consistent speed, albeit in maiden and allowance company.
Vinceremos, ridden by Edgar Prado, has an unusual running style, which was on display in the Sam F. Davis. The horse squandered a 11⁄2-length lead entering the final stretch, preferring to run side-by-side with the other contenders, and proceeded to pull away late and win by a nose.
Many experts have described the style as “green,” or showing a lack of experience, but there’s no question that Vinceremos is a competitive thoroughbred that likes a challenge.
“Everything has gone according to plan since the Davis,” Pletcher said in a TBD release. “Whether he has improved enough to win, we’ll find out (today).”
Vinceremos also is eligible for a $1-million bonus if he can win today’s race and the Kentucky Derby. Two horses have won both the Sam F. Davis and Tampa Bay Derby: Thundering Storm (1996) and Burning Roma (2001). Neither won the Kentucky Derby.