by Brian Nadeau of Horseplayer Now and Capital OTB TV.
Tampa Bay Downs: The GII, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby at 1 1/16 miles (Kentucky Derby qualifying points: 50-20-10-5)
#1 Morning Fire (15-1): One of three exiting last month’s local prep, the GIII Sam Davis, will need to improve on that third-place finish to have a say here, as he was well behind Destin and Rafting, and several of the invaders have better resumes than that pair. Son of Friesan Fire cleared and set his own pace last time, but it’s highly unlikely that he’s making the front here, as there’s some serious speed signed on, plus Nations takes the blinkers off, likely in the hopes of getting this colt to relax a bit better early on. The draw helps, as he’ll be able to save all the ground, and this runner did win a minor stakes here two back, but after that the positives are few, as this group is just too tough; needs softer to threaten.
#2 Rafting (6-1): Improving homebred raised his game another notch in the Davis, when he was a good second in his first start of the year in what was by far the best race of his career for Motion. Son of Tapit has a stalking gear that should allow him to trip out nicely just off the speed while getting first run on the closers, and having a good race over what can be a tricky track certainly helps his cause too. And sure, he’s got to run better to beat all the newcomers, not to mention that he’s got to find 2 1/4 lengths on Destin, too, but there’s no reason to think he can’t do it with that tightener behind him; won’t fault anyone looking his way at a nice price.
#3 Outwork (12-1): Undefeated and untested runner is one of the last hopes for Pletcher, as he’s largely swung and missed with his 3-year-olds this year, and if you want to play the jockey’s musical chairs game, you can surmise Velazquez chose to ride this colt, even though he won the Davis on Destin. Son of Uncle Mo was visually impressive winning his return over this track last month, and that was his first outing since his career debut way back in April, so he gets a few extra points for that, even though the figure came up extremely slow. There are a lot of questions to answer here though, as this is his stakes and two-turn debut, and you know he’s behind the eight ball and playing catch-up, so when you factor that in with an underlaid price (there’s no way you’re getting 12-1), it really makes you think twice before calling out his number; taking a wait and see approach.
#4 Economic Model (5-1): Intriguing sort was run off his feet early in the GII Swale, when fellow rival Awesome Banner was blazing away on the engine, then dropped back, yet somehow found himself in deep stretch and was making a nice impact late, though well after the race was decided. And off that return run, which was his first since winning his debut at Saratoga in August, you have to think he’ll be much more prepared today for Brown, who is off to another fine start this year. Son of Flatter is bred to relish the added turn and distance he gets here and should be perfectly placed in mid-pack while waiting for the speed to come back to him, and he gives every indication that he’s coming up to a lifetime best; call in a real scramble.
#5 Star Hill (15-1): Homebred son of Elusive Quality had been hinting on a big effort for a few starts and finally delivered last time, when he blew away a weak MSW field at Gulfstream Park in fast time for Arnold. Stalker is another who fits the race flow to a tee, as he’s shown that he can pass horses in the lane, though doing it at the MSW level is one thing, while doing it in a legitimate GII Kentucky Derby prep is another. On the face of it there’s a lot of talent here, and this is the logical spot for a horse who just won for fun and may be getting good at the right time, but this is a very salty crew that isn’t going to blink when the real running begins; worth remembering his name for down the road.
#6 Riker (8-1): Private purchase was Canada’s top 2-year-old last year while winning a trio of stakes for Nick Gonzalez before seeing his undefeated record end at four when he dueled early and relented late when sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland. But heck, that was his dirt debut and first start away from home, too, so to be beaten four lengths by Nyquist isn’t that bad at all. Casse takes over now with this son of Include and picks a mighty ambitious spot to see what’s under the hood, as he hasn’t been out since the Juvenile on 11/1, though he’s been working swiftly in the a.m. at Palm Meadows. The worry here is two-fold, as this barn’s 3yo dirt runners haven’t done much running this year (think Aeroforce), and he’s another who wants to mix it up early, so in a race with a ton of speed, that’s not a recipe for success; midpack finish.
#7 Destin (9-2): Impressive winner of the Davis stalked from just off the pace and pulled clear late in a breakthrough performance to give Pletcher a legitimate Triple Crown hope in a year where not a lot has gone right for this barn’s sophomores. Son of Giant’s Causeway still has a lot to prove, though, as, let’s face it, those in the Davis weren’t much, and he was only a meek fourth against better in the GIII Lecomte at Fair Grounds in January. Castellano is surely an able replacement for Velazquez and he’s aboard a horse that could be streaking, but at a short price in a race where he needs to run better to beat a tough group of newcomers, he’s best limited to a supporting role; using underneath only.
#8 Brody’s Cause (5-2): Hotshot 2yo makes his long awaited debut at 3 while taking the road less traveled for Romans, who picks what is seemingly a very late start to this son of Giant’s Causeway’s campaign. Deep closer rallied to win Keeneland’s GI Breeders’ Futurity last year and used the same tactics to run third there in the Juvenile, so if nothing else, you know the race flow will suit his style today. He’s been training right along and that last local work over the surface was a dandy, too, so it looks like he’s coming up to this in good shape, but the reality is that there are bad vibes in this corner, and he’s going to be a short price, too, so while he may be the most talented horse in the race, that doesn’t mean that he’s hitting the finish line first; taking a strong stand against on top.
#9 Tale of S’avall (12-1): Really liked this colt as a 2yo and thought he was poised to deliver a big run in Belmont Park’s GI Champagne when last seen in October, but the slop didn’t seem to agree with him and he tired badly when fifth to the classy Greenpointcrusader. Well, Tagg sure doesn’t duck anyone for his first start since, as this is a mighty ambitious spot to kick off your season, as well as try two turns for the first time. Homebred son of Tale of Ekati is another who has some speed, so if nothing else, he should be able to get position from this wide draw, and after that, it’s just a matter of whether he’s good enough and tight enough to make a dent, and the thinking is that he is and then some; don’t ignore.
#10 Awesome Banner (8-1): Apparently owner-breeder Brei and trainer Gold were the only two who didn’t get the memo after Gulfstream’s GII Fountain of Youth that was titled “your horse can’t go two turns,” because that’s the only plausible reason to run him back on two weeks’ rest after he popped and stopped badly against the undefeated Mohaymen. Awesome of Course colt is bred for this, but going long he was a shell of the horse that blazed early and pulled clear late winning a pair of sprint stakes down south this year, so why he would turn it around in here off such a no-show is anyone’s guess. The speed of the speed will probably need to be caught, but after folding up so badly last time it seems only a matter of time before they reel him in today; tough to endorse.
#4 Economic Model
#9 Tale of S’avall
#8 Brody’s Cause