Will Sole Volante win again in the Tampa Bay Derby?

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

The Road to the Kentucky Derby will take a few major turns this Saturday. Three important prep races are on the agenda, all offering 50 qualification points to their respective winners.

The $400,000 San Felipe (G2) at Santa Anita will be among the most anticipated events of the day, with exciting maiden winner Honor A. P. squaring off against graded stakes winners Authentic, Thousand Words, and Storm the Court. Meanwhile, across the country, Aqueduct will host the $300,000 Gotham (G3), in which runaway Swale (G3) winner Mischevious Alex will wage battle against well-regarded maiden winners War Stopper and Attachment Rate.

Both the San Felipe and the Gotham are appealing races, but we'll focus our attention on the $400,000 Tampa Bay Derby (G2) at Tampa Bay Downs. The 1 1/16-mile race has attracted a dozen entries, and on paper, the favorites look like fast colts with the potential to develop into serious Kentucky Derby contenders.

Let's dig in and see who looks best in this competitive race:

Tampa Bay Derby (G2)

The 2-1 morning line favorite is Sole Volante, who figures to be a polarizing horse for handicappers to analyze. Conditioned by Patrick Biancone, who won last week's Fountain of Youth (G2) with Ete Indien, Sole Volante has shown a lot of talent and versatility during his first four starts.

A late-running son of Breeders' Cup Mile (G1) winner Karakontie, Sole Volante is bred for turf and certainly thrived on the lawn in his first two starts, producing powerful rallies to win a maiden special weight and the Pulpit Stakes in daylight fashion. His triumph in the Pulpit was particularly eye-catching as he stormed from a dozen lengths behind to win decisively, clocking a mile in 1:33.02.

Despite having few dirt influences in his pedigree, Sole Volante performed just fine when switching to the main track for the 1-mile Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Reserved off the pace as usual, Sole Volante came charging late to finish third, beaten 2 1/4 lengths in a fast race.

With a run on dirt under his belt, Sole Volante took a big step forward in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3). Racing over the same track and distance as the Tampa Bay Derby, Sole Volante settled 15 1/2 lengths behind a fast pace before making a terrific mid-race move to reach contention on the far turn. According to the chart, Sole Volante gained 13 1/2 lengths during the third quarter-mile, with Trakus timing Sole Volante's sensational sprint in a blazing :23.26.

No matter how you slice it, this was a huge move. Even more remarkably, Sole Volante managed to sustain his momentum, running the final five-sixteenths of a mile in an excellent :30.53 to win by 2 1/2 lengths over two-time stakes winner and heavy favorite Independence Hall.

Granted, the early pace of the Tampa Bay Derby was fast, which played in Sole Volante's favor while arguably putting the pace-tracking Independence Hall at a disadvantage. But it's not like Sole Volante was passing tiring rivals in a staggering finish. To the contrary, Sole Volante was full of run down the homestretch, and Independence Hall finished 11 1/4 lengths clear of Remsen (G2) runner-up Ajaaweed. In my opinion, Independence Hall ran a winning race in his own right, and Sole Volante was simply better on the day.

Sole Volante appears to be improving at the right time, and his obvious affinity for the occasionally tricky main track at Tampa Bay Downs is a big positive in his favor. Just as significantly, he figures to receive another perfect pace setup on Saturday. #1 Texas Swing, #2 Spa City, #3 Relentless Dancer, #4 Chance It, #5 Market Analysis, #6 Mo Mosa, #10 Bye Bye Marvin, and #11 King Guillermo have all shown varying degrees of early speed, while #9 Unrighteous and #12 Tons of Gold will be racing with blinkers for the first time, which could potentially sharpen their speed as well.

I'm not saying Sole Volante is unbeatable in the Tampa Bay Derby. He's facing a couple of formidable rivals. #4 Chance It brings impressive Beyer and Brisnet speed figures to the equation for hot trainer Saffie Joseph, and he actually beat Sole Volante in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes, securing victory with a perfect ground-saving trip. I'm also a big fan of the Godolphin homebred #2 Spa City, who battled to victory in a 1 1/8-mile maiden special weight at Gulfstream last month, clocking the distance in 1:49.24 to earn solid speed figures.

But Sole Volante's triumph in the Sam F. Davis was legitimately good, and a repeat will make him tough to deny in the Tampa Bay Derby. Could this previously unheralded gelding—a $20,000 auction purchase bred to thrive on grass—turn out to be the 2020 Kentucky Derby winner? I think he has a better chance than most, and I think he'll land in the winner's circle this Saturday.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Tampa Bay Derby?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.

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