The jewel of the winter meet at Tampa Bay Downs will be run this Saturday, as 10 three-year-olds face the starter in the Grade 2, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby. Over the years, this race has developed into a proven producer of Triple Crown contenders, including Derby winners Street Sense and Super Saver. A win in this race is worth 50 qualifying points, and that assurance of a berth on the first Saturday in May has attracted some of the most talented three-year-olds in training.
A discussion of this race must begin with an assessment of the likely pace scenario. Our Pace Projector is predicting a fast pace, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has glanced at the TimeformUS Preview Page, which labels five of the ten horses as having either “Speed” or Leader” running styles. Indeed, at least three competitors in this race are confirmed frontrunners—#10 Awesome Banner, #6 Riker, and #1 Morning Fire—and a few more figure to be forwardly placed as they stretch out to this two-turn distance for the first time.
This abundance of speed types figures to set things up for a closer, and the most high-profile late runner in the race is Brody’s Cause, the third-place finisher in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. However, he lacks the recency of most of his rivals as he launches his sophomore campaign.
Let’s go through the field:
#1, Morning Fire (15/1): This year’s renewal of the prep for the Tampa Bay Derby, the Sam F. Davis Stakes, earned a relatively strong speed figure, so the runners exiting that race should be respected as they reconvene in this tougher spot. In fact, based on speed figures, Morning Fire is one of the fastest three-year-olds in this race. That said, this horse has been on the lead in all of his recent starts, and it seems like a tall order for any runner in this race to wire the field with so much other speed signed on. His connections are removing the blinkers, so perhaps they plan on riding him more patiently, but this is a tough post position for a horse that isn’t accustomed to taking dirt in his face.
#2, Rafting (6/1): The second place finisher out of the Sam F. Davis Stakes is an interesting player here. In that prep, for the first time, Rafting successfully rated several lengths off the pace and was able to appropriately time his move, ranging up into contention as the field approached the quarter pole. He was ultimately turned away by today’s rival Destin in deep stretch, but it was a significant step forward for a horse that had been far less professional in his two-year-old starts. It’s likely that Rafting does not even have to expand much further on the 112 speed figure that he was assigned for that last effort to win this race. The major question for Rafting is whether he can reproduce that performance in a 10-horse field while breaking from an inside post position and possibly taking dirt in his face—something he didn’t have to deal with in the Sam F. Davis—and pass seven or more horses to get up for the win. He’s one of the primary contenders, but we would want to get every bit of his 6/1 morning line in order to back him strongly.
#3, Outwork (12/1):
This is one of the most intriguing runners in the race. Hailing from the first crop of record-setting freshman sire Uncle Mo, out of a Grade 1-placed dam, it’s no surprise that he has turned some heads in his two starts to date. However, the waters get much deeper here. He’s never raced beyond six furlongs, has never had to deal with another horse in front of him, and has made only a single start since last April. He also needs to significantly improve his speed figure, since the 97 he earned for his return won’t even get him into the superfecta against a field of this caliber. Despite all of these negatives, this horse does have an air of quality about him, and we would not be surprised if it turned out that the best was yet to come. Still, a double-digit price on him is absolutely essential for us to even consider including him in our wagers.
#4, Economic Model (5/1): Economic Model is one of four horses in this field to have launched his career at Saratoga last summer, and he was arguably one of the most impressive debut winners of the meet. He did not resurface for nearly six months following that eye-catching effort, but he certainly got started back on the right track with his runner-up result in the Swale Stakes at the end of January. Though he finished five lengths behind today’s rival Awesome Banner, Economic Model’s pedigree would suggest that this stretch-out in distance may even the playing field between those two. We’re still somewhat skeptical of the overall quality of the Swale as a Derby prep, so we don’t want to overestimate his ability relative to his more seasoned rivals. Ultimately, it will come down to a question of value with him. In our opinion, his morning line price of 5/1 is too short, and we’d require a slightly higher number to throw our support behind him.
#5, Star Hill (15/1): Star Hill actually began his career in the same race as Economic Model last summer at Saratoga, finishing just over two lengths behind that rival. While he’s done more racing since then, the results have been mixed. He didn’t handle two turns in the Iroquois last fall, but that was an ambitious placement for a maiden. Since returning at Gulfstream this winter, he’s only sprinted, but he did register a commanding victory while earning a decent 103 speed figure last time. We still question his capacity to negotiate this distance, but his willingness to pass horses may come in handy in a race that suits his running style. George “Rusty” Arnold gets a 94 trainer rating with horses making their third starts off a layoff and a 95 rating with horses stretching out from sprints to routes. At what should be a fairly large price, it might be worth throwing this runner into trifectas and superfectas.
#6, Riker (8/1): This one-dimensional frontrunner gets his second chance on dirt as he makes his three-year-old debut for new trainer Mark Casse. He was hardly disgraced in his conventional dirt debut in the Breeders’ Cup last fall, setting an honest pace before fading in the stretch. His primary hurdle on this occasion is the pace. He’s enjoyed relatively moderate paces in many of his wins, and the Pace Projector places him in mid-pack, rather than on the lead. He may have to be hard-used by Florent Geroux in the early stages to attain his customary forward position, and that could be costly in terms of his fortitude in the stretch. He’s apparently been training strongly down at Palm Meadows, but we cannot get past the many factors opposing him here.
#7, Destin (9/2):
In many ways, this is the horse to beat. Brody’s Cause brings the two-year-old back class and is likely to go off at a shorter price on those grounds, but Destin earned the highest last-out speed figure, a 114 when winning the Sam F. Davis, and he has been steadily improving in each start. This full-brother to Creative Cause had always hinted at possessing great ability, but he was plagued by greenness and a general lack of focus in his races. He corrected many of those issues last time out, as he overcome a wide trip to handily beat Rafting in a much more professional manner. John Velazquez aligning himself with Outwork is not disconcerting in the least, since Javier Castellano actually has the most experience aboard Destin, having ridden him at the start of his career. He’s not a deep closer like Brody’s Cause. He should sit another good trip perched outside of the leaders. If he continues on his current trajectory, we think he can win right back. A price around 3/1 would be fair enough.
#8, Brody’s Cause (5/2):
Brody’s Cause was one of the most accomplished two-year-olds of 2015, becoming a Grade 1 winner in the Breeders’ Futurity before finishing third to Eclipse Award champion Nyquist in the Breeders’ Cup. He is a deep closer with a potent stretch kick who was twice able to overcome the short stretch run of Keeneland’s mile and a sixteenth configuration. The seemingly unavoidable contested pace of this Tampa Bay Derby should play right into his hands. While we have the utmost respect for his ability, we do recognize that this race is not the end goal. He already has Kentucky Derby qualifying points and figures to be more at home back at Keeneland, where he is likely to contest the Blue Grass in his final prep for the Run for the Roses. Dale Romans, despite all of his success, does not show particularly strong statistics with layoff runners, and gets just a 45 trainer rating with horses coming off extended breaks of this type. Brody’s Cause can certainly win this race. However, at odds of around 5/2, or perhaps lower, he will have us considering some higher-priced alternatives.
#9, Tale of S’avall (12/1):
Like Economic Model, this horse began his career in style at Saratoga last summer, overcoming a wide trip to draw off to a powerful victory. He was justifiably bet down to odds of 4/1 when immediately stepped up to Grade 1 company next time out in the Champagne. That race was contested over a sloppy track, and Tale of S’avall, a sprinter stretching out in distance, wound up on the lead. He faded in the stretch that day, but his connections were undeterred and entered him right back in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He was ultimately scratched out of that race with a minor issue, and put away for the winter. Barclay Tagg, who had a remarkably strong year with a very small stable of two-year-olds in 2015, is not one to just take a shot in the Breeders’ Cup or on the Derby trail. Such ambitious placement in a graded stakes at this stage of a horse’s career is uncharacteristic for this Derby-winning trainer. Though Tale of S’avall showed speed in the Champagne, we don’t get the feeling that he is a true frontrunner. Instead, we would expect that Joe Bravo will be instructed to take him off the pace this time. He certainly has the breeding to stretch out in distance, especially on the female side of his pedigree. He’s worked well, down at Palm Meadows, for his return, and he may get overlooked in the wagering as the public gravitates towards the other lightly raced runners to his inside.
#10, Awesome Banner (8/1): There’s plenty of speed in this race, but Awesome Banner is predicted to be the fastest of them all in the early stages. He basically has to be sent hard out of the gate from this outside post position if he’s going to clear all of the runners to his inside by the time they reach the clubhouse turn. While he’s run some of the fastest speed figures in this field, he could not handle two turns in the Fountain of Youth, so we don’t see why it’s going to be a different story today. This colt won’t be on any of our tickets.
Of the proven contenders, we give the slight edge to Destin over morning line favorite Brody’s Cause. Yet this is a wide-open race that we believe is open to some of the more lightly raced outsiders at more enticing prices. The horse that we think could offer the best value is TALE OF S’AVALL (#9), and we will focus our wagers around him.
Exacta Key Box (Primary): 9 with 2,7,8
Exacta Key Box (Backup): 9 with 3,4,5