By Gene Kershner
We're 56 days from the Run for the Roses and this weekend on the Derby trail comes to you from Tampa Bay Downs and Santa Anita Park. Two Kentucky Derby Championship Series races are on the calendar and will provide the top four finishers the opportunity to claim valuable Derby points on the Road to Louisville.
The Tampa Bay Derby, a race that provided us with the 2007 Derby champion Street Sense, will be the first of the two Derby prep races to be held on Saturday afternoon. Santa Anita will host the San Felipe Stakes and a field of eight colts later that afternoon on the west coast.
In Tampa, nine colts have entered the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby with a total purse of $350,000 to be run over 1 1/16-miles. One horse that has been generating a tremendous amount of hype is 6-Verrazano, a colt that will be making his third career start, winning his first two races by a combined 24 lengths. He'll try two turns for the first time over the quirky Tampa dirt surface, which has been known to trip up more than one Derby contender (see War Pass, circa 2008).
The More Than Ready colt has been working tremendously and will likely be a very short price on the tote board when they leave the gate in Florida on Saturday afternoon.
Two challengers that I have my eye on that could challenge the heavy favorite are 3-Honorable Dillon, winner of the Grade 2 Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream who will stretch out for the first time for trainer Eddie Kenneally and 5-Dynamic Sky. The Mark Casse-trained Dynamic Sky is an Ontario-bred who has a couple trips over the Tampa surface, the second going two turns in the Sam F. Davis where he finished second behind 9-Falling Sky, who will be in the outside post on Saturday.
Those four appear to be the top contestants to claim Derby points. If you're looking for a long shot possibility, red-hot trainer Jane Cibelli (30 percent winner at the Tampa meet) will send out the Lion Heart colt 2-Purple Egg, who comes off a bullet work and a win in a non-graded stake in Tampa
On the left coast, the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes will pit two of California's top runners against each other going the same 1 1/16-mile distance. Top trainer Bob Baffert sends out Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis winner 2-Flashback, who has posted back to back bullet workouts over the past two weeks, earning him 10 Derby points in the making. Baffert will be looking for a record setting fifth San Felipe win to break a tie with Hall of Famer Charlie Whittingham, and sends out 1-Carving in addition to Flashback.
He'll be vying against 3-Goldencents, winner of two Grade 3 Prep Season point races, the Delta Jackpot and the Sham Stakes. He currently sits in fifth place in the Derby standings with 24 points. Trainer Doug O'Neill looks to win back to back victories in America's biggest race on the First
Saturday in May.
Jerry Hollendorfer enters the Ghostzapper gelding 5-Hear the Ghost who will be routing for the first time going two turns at the Great Race Place. Hollendorfer has been on fire at Santa Anita as of late, and should hit the board with this one behind the two top contenders.
The San Felipe last produced a Derby winner in 2000 when Fusaichi Pegasus won the race. The 2009 Derby runner-up, Pioneerof the Nile, also won the San Felipe during that year's Road to the Derby.
The current leaders through last weekend's results, highlighted by Vyjack's big win in the Gotham, shows a logjam at 10 points between 11 different horses. The tie-breaker to gain a gate in the Derby will be non-restricted graded earnings.