I will be the first to admit that over the years, Tampa Bay Downs is not a place where I seek my Kentucky Derby horses.
As far as Florida has been concerned, it started and stopped at Gulfstream. That is, until this year. For the first time, in well, whenever, I am looking forward to this Saturday’s Sam F. Davis at the Tampa track.
There have been some exceptions as in 2007, Street Sense used Tampa as a launching pad to win the Derby. The race was used as a point race in 2013 – the first year of Churchill instituting the current system, but then was excluded from 2014-2016 before coming back into the fold last year.
Now it’s the second straight year and there could be a pair of legitimate Derby runners in the field.
The race is the 10th on the Tampa card and is set for a 1:52 p.m. (PDT) post.
Catholic Boy (8-5, morning line favorite) is a horse I have been keen on since last summer and my interest has grown. He didn’t have a bad run, finishing fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, his third straight start on the grass.
The connections came back and put him in the Grade II Remsen over the main track at Aqueduct and he pulled off a convincing four-length win in his first start on dirt. The run was made to look even better when second-place finisher Avery Island came back to take the Withers at Aqueduct February 3.
Now with three wins in four starts, a strong run Saturday will vault Catholic Boy into the conversation of top Derby contenders.
Standing in the way is Hollywood Star (5-2), the sixth-place runner in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The horse has one win in four starts – a maiden allowance score in his debut – but did follow with a pair of strong seconds in graded stakes races before the Juvenile.
Vino Rosso (3-1) is another horse getting respect from the oddsmakers, but that is the norm for any Todd Pletcher 3-year-olds this time of year. The horse is two-for-two and does have a win over the track.
Although not a “point” race, this Grade II at Santa Anita on Saturday does feature four horses that have been nominated to the Derby.
The race is No. 6 on the Santa Anita care and has a post time of 2:30 p.m.
Ax Man (6-5) is out of the Bob Baffert barn and put the racing world on notice with a 9-length maiden debut on January 1. He handily beat Lombo, the horse that won the Robert B. Lewis – an official prep race – last Saturday at Santa Anita.
Nero (8-1) is another Baffert runner that may have as much physical talent as ay 3-year-old in the country, but the heart and desire remain to be seen. In his debut in August, he appeared to have the race easily won, but basically put the brakes on and lost by a nose.
Jockey Martin Garcia drew a bundle of unfair criticism for the ride. Nero came back in his second start and won by a nose this time, but once again had issues in the stretch.
That time winning jockey Victor Espinoza, who has also worked the horse in the morning, spoke openly about how the horse has a mind of his own and he s hoping that now that he has a win under his belt, maybe things would be different.
Perhaps it has or perhaps Nero will be playing with the fiddle while Rome burns, or the cash of any bettors he may pick up. It’s easy to look elsewhere here, but at 8-1, it does make you think that maybe the $950,000 horse has figured it out.
By Dennis Miller