The Derby Trail Runs Through...Tampa?

Trivia question: Which prep race has had the most impact on the Kentucky Derby over the past five years? If you guessed the Florida Derby, Arkansas Derby, or any of the other "major" preps, you would be wrong. The answer is the Tampa Bay Derby.

Since 2006, the Tampa Bay Derby, which only became a grade II race last year, has produced two Kentucky Derby winners and a horse that finished third. Street Sense, who won the 2006 Tampa Bay Derby before going on to the Blue Grass Stakes, started the streak. In 2009, Musket Man won the Tampa Bay Derby and the Illinois Derby before going on to finish third in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. And in 2010, Super Saver finished a close third in Tampa's premier race, moved onto the Arkansas Derby, and then pulled an upset on the first Saturday in May.

Because of its timing on the calendar, the Tampa Bay Derby is not the final prep for Derby hopefuls, but its recent history says it can be a meaningful race. Along with the San Felipe at Santa Anita, it highlights the 3-year-old action this weekend. Let's take a look at both races.

Tampa Bay Derby

Three of the top four finishers from the Sam Davis return including the winner, Battle Hardened, as well as Spring Hill Farm, yet another new shooter from the barn of Todd Pletcher. It's a good betting race, though I'm not expecting a 43-1 shot like last year to come in.

I have to think that Spring Hill Farm will run well for Pletcher. It's his stakes debut, but he shouldn't have any trouble making the lead and his first two races suggest that he's a top-class 3-year-old. He's a Smart Strike colt that got started late (May 12 foal), but hasn't missed a beat all winter since Pletcher took him to Palm Meadows. I would be surprised if he wasn't a factor and will certainly include in all my wagering exotics.

That said, I am going to play Take Charge Indy on top (even with the ice-cold Borel on him). This colt has been highly-regarded from day one, breaking his maiden by 6 1/2 lengths in his debut and running a good second in the grade III Arlington-Washington Futurity. He was off the board in two grade I starts to complete his season, but he didn't run poorly in either one. His first start on dirt in the BC Juvenile was a solid fifth. He started the year off with a very good second-place effort against El Padrino, who of course came back to win the Risen Star and is a top Derby contender. He earned a 109 Bris Speed Figure for that performance, the best of this field-by far. Post 10 doesn't bother me too much because the horse is versatile.

I'm also going to use Battle Hardened, who really ran a professional race in the San Davis while being stuck on the inside most of the way, and longshot Cozzetti. Just a hunch on Cozzetti, mainly for the fact that he ran his best race in his only dirt start. Plus, if you go back to my blog last week, Romans told me this horse trains as well as any of his 3-year-olds. He just hasn't put it all together yet.

San Felipe

This race will tell us a lot about the top West Coast horses. Even with the loss of Out of Bounds and Fed Biz (who is probably going to the Sunland Derby now), it's a contentious field of 10. You can really make a strong case for almost all of them.

I'm going to give Liaison another shot. His Robert Lewis was a clunker from the start, as he was rank before losing the rider when clipping heels. Baffert is tossing it, and so am I. Baffert worked the horse three times since then, with his goal to get him to relax better early. The blinkers come off and I think you'll see a different horse this time. Remember, he was a grade I winner last year at this distance.

Not sure what to make of Bodemeister; he might be a freak. But I'll take a pass on him since he is jumping way up against much classier horses. I'm also going to use Midnight Transfer and Empire Way. I'm not sure how Midnight Transfer will do in his first try at two turns, but he trains like a horse that won't have a problem getting 1 1/16 miles. He trains over the track and has two straight wins there.

Empire Way impressed me the way he finished in the Robert Lewis, a race that nobody else was finishing in. The pace might be pretty quick here with Bodemeister and others, so it might set up for him.

Good luck this weekend. Who do you guys like?

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