Will Pletcher Win Another Tampa Bay Derby?

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

Limehouse. Verrazano. Carpe Diem. Destin. Tapwrit. What do these five colts have in common? A lot, actually. They were all conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher. They all competed in the Kentucky Derby (G1). And they all won the Tampa Bay Derby (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs.

No trainer has won the Tampa Bay Derby more times than Pletcher, whose five winners in 2004, 2013, 2015, 2016, and 2017 included a future Belmont S. (G1) winner (Tapwrit), a Belmont runner-up (Destin), and a couple of two-time Grade 1 winners (Carpe Diem and Verrazano). The point being, Pletcher saddles good horses in the Tampa Bay Derby and frequently comes away with first prize.

All this is to preface the possibility of Pletcher's #6 Tapit Trice emerging as a star in the 2023 Tampa Bay Derby, which is taking place this Saturday over 1 1/16 miles. Sold for $1.3 million as a yearling, Tapit Trice has shown a lot of potential and ranks among the early favorites for the Kentucky Derby.

A stoutly bred son of three-time leading sire Tapit out of the stakes-winning Dunkirk mare Danzatrice, Tapit Trice debuted in a one-mile maiden special weight at Aqueduct and gained a lot of ground down the homestretch to finish third, beaten 2 1/2 lengths. He hasn't tasted defeat since then.

Tapit Trice picked up his first victory when sticking to one mile at Aqueduct for a Dec. 17 maiden special weight. Tapit Trice didn't get off to the sharpest start, but rallied from seventh place in an eight-horse field to beat next-out maiden winner Slip Mahoney by a neck. That performance was flattered when Slip Mahoney finished second in the Gotham S. (G3) on the Road to the Kentucky Derby last weekend.

Tapit Trice subsequently shipped to Gulfstream Park and made his three-year-old debut in a $75,000 allowance optional claimer racing one mile. Facing only five rivals, Tapit Trice showed a bit more early speed than usual, sticking within two lengths of the early pace. Then he rallied to the front at the quarter pole and kicked clear through the final furlong to dominate by eight lengths.

Any way you slice it, this was an impressive performance. Tapit Trice earned strong speed figures of 92 (Beyer) and 99 (Brisnet), as well as an eye-catching 107 Brisnet Late Pace rating.

Tapit Trice probably isn't unbeatable in the Tampa Bay Derby. He's facing 11 rivals, so his off-the-pace running style puts him at risk of a traffic-filled trip. But Tapit Trice's improving form and strong speed figures stamp him as the horse to beat, especially when you add in the Pletcher factor.

Who are the other key contenders in the Tampa Bay Derby? Certainly we have to respect the second Pletcher trainee, #9 Shesterkin. A 2 1/4-length debut winner sprinting seven furlongs at Gulfstream Park, Shesterskin subsequently finished second behind Tapit Trice in the latter's runaway allowance score. Shesterkin is adding blinkers for his stakes debut and can't be counted out of the mix for a top-three finish.

#4 Groveland, runner-up in Tampa's Sam F. Davis (G3) on the Road to the Kentucky Derby last month, is another logical choice. But #12 Prairie Hawk is arguably just as appealing. True, he never fired in the Sam F. Davis, finishing ninth by a wide margin. But two starts back, Prairie Hawk led all the way to beat Groveland by one length in a $75,000 allowance optional claimer racing one mile and 40 yards at Tampa.

Prairie Hawk benefited from setting a slow pace that day, but he's capable of handling quicker fractions. Three starts back, he tracked a runaway pacesetter from second place before kicking on to win a one-mile and 40-yard maiden special weight at Tampa by 2 3/4 lengths.

Prairie Hawk is a son of two-time Horse of the Year and elite sire Curlin and a half-brother to 2018 Tampa Bay Derby winner Quip, so there's plenty of class in his pedigree. He also has hot human connections in his corner; trainer Saffie Joseph has gone 4-for-9 (44%) at Tampa since the start of the year, while jockey Samy Camacho boasts a 61-for-240 (25%) record during the same timeframe. If you're willing to draw a line through Prairie Hawk's no-show in the Sam F. Davis, there's a lot to like about his chances.

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.

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