Highly-regarded sophomore Verrazano makes his stakes debut against eight others March 9 in the $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs, rolling in off an impressive 16 3/4-length allowance optional claiming win at Gulfstream Park.
The 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby, worth 50 qualifying points for the winner on the road to the Kentucky Derby, has also attracted the top two finishers from the South Florida oval's Feb. 2 Sam F. Davis Stakes, Falling Sky and Dynamic Sky. It will be run as race 10 with an approximate post time of 5:15 p.m. EST. The race has produced two Kentucky Derby winners in 32 runnings thus far -- Street Sense and Super Saver.
Verrazano, a half brother to 2011 Risen Star Stakes winner El Padrino, is the likely favorite making his third start for trainer Todd Pletcher, who won the 2004 Tampa Bay Derby with Dogwood Stables' Limehouse . Verrazano broke his maiden by 7 3/4 lengths going 6 1/2 furlongs at Gulfstream Jan. 1 before coming back Feb. 2 to rumble in that one-mile allowance test. The son of More Than Ready earned Beyer speed figures of 94 and 105 for the respective efforts under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez for Let's Go Stable, Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith, and Susan Magnier.
Breaking from post 6 under Velazquez, Verrazano will carry 118 pounds in his quest for Derby points. He turned in his final pre-race move March 3 at Palm Meadows, going four furlongs in :48.39.
"He trained so well before his maiden race, we anticipated he'd run well," Pletcher remarked. "Then he trained just as good or better for his second race. When you have one that trains as well as he does and has run as well as he had, you want to see more of the same."
The Davis winner, Falling Sky, went gate-to-wire in that last start for his new connections -- Maurice and Samantha Regan's Newtown Anner Stud, James Covello, and Joseph Bulger -- to earn 10 points on the road to the Kentucky Derby. The partners purchased the Pennsylvania-bred Lion Heart colt for $425,000 at the Ocala Breeders' Sales Co.'s winter mixed sale Jan. 15, less than three weeks before the Davis, with trainer John Terranova II opting to run the colt there instead of sprinting in the Hutcheson Stakes (gr. II) at Gulfstream.
Falling Sky breezed five furlongs in :59.78 March 3 at Palm Meadows, fastest of 21 works at the training center going the distance on the day. He will leave post 9 on the far outside under a 122-pound high weight including jockey Jose Espinoza.
Dynamic Sky's rally in the Davis came up a neck short, but the Mark Casse-trained youngster will have the advantage of two races over the Tampa Bay Downs surface and follows the same path as Prospective, Casse's 2012 Tampa Bay Derby winner. Both Dynamic Sky and Prospective won the $100,000 Pasco Stakes in their 3-year-old debuts before finishing second in the Davis for owner John Oxley.
Dynamic Sky, an Ontario-bred son of Sky Mesa who has eight points on the road to the Kentucky Derby, finished sixth in last fall's Grey Goose Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita Park, beaten 5 1/4 lengths by Shanghai Bobby. He also worked March 3 at Palm Meadows, breezing five furlongs in 1:01.87, and will leave the 5 hole under Joel Rosario and 118 pounds.
Casse is one of four trainers with Tampa Bay Derby victories expected to vie for another trip to the winner's circle. Hall of Famer Nick Zito won the 2005 edition with Sun King, and is expected back with Eton Blue from the rail for owner Marylou Whitney.
Eton Blue is a Kentucky homebred son of Giant's Causeway out of Whitney's Grade 1 winner Bird Town, who took the 2003 Kentucky Oaks and Acorn Stakes as a 3-year-old. The bay colt finished second to Verrazano Feb. 2 in that Gulfstream allowance/optional claimer while giving four pounds to the winner.
Eton Blue breezed four furlongs March 2 at Palm Meadows in :47.04, second-fastest of 30 works at the distance, and carries 118 pounds including jockey Joe Bravo.
Go back 14 years to find the other past Tampa Bay Derby-winning trainer with a horse for this year's edition: Ken McPeek, who saddled Pineaff in 1999 and will send out Java's War for his 3-year-old debut. A homebred son of War Pass owned by Charles Fipke, Java's War turned in a bullet five-furlong workout of :59.89 March 2 at Gulfstream.
Java's War won the Sunday Silence Stakes at Louisiana Downs on the turf last September and was third in the Dixiana Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland, beaten three-quarters of a length by runner-up Dynamic Sky.
Others of note in the Tampa Bay Derby field include Feb. 2 Hutcheson winner Honorable Dillon, who stretches out from seven furlongs for trainer Eddie Kenneally; and the Jane Cibelli-trained Purple Egg, who has missed his past two starts in stakes company due to illness but is back on track to extend his 3-for-3 record that includes the Dec. 1 Inaugural Stakes at Tampa Bay.
Offlee Fast, who was second by a head in his previous start Feb. 16 at Gulfstream to Pletcher's multiple-grade I-placed Capo Bastone, and Pletcher trainee Park City, a neck allowance winner over Declan's Warrior going 6 1/2 furlongs at Gulfstream Feb. 9, complete the field.
The Tampa Bay Derby will also award 20 points to the runner-up, 10 for third place, and 5 for fourth. It is the main event of Festival Day 33, the track's most lucrative afternoon of Thoroughbred racing, with three stakes worth $600,000 and nine additional races including the $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes for older fillies and mares going 1 1/8 miles on the turf.