Tampa Bay Derby Seeks a Sweet Path Out of Derby Prep Shadows

The Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby is one of those Kentucky Derby preps that often gets lost in the shuffle. Part of that is the giant shadow Tampa Bay Downs fights from its southern Florida neighbor, Gulfstream Park.

Candy Man Rocket-TB Derby
Candy Man Rocket held on for a length victory in last month’s Sam F. Davis Stakes. He’ll need a better finishing kick to prevail in Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby. (Image: SV Photography)

Part of that is the fact only two horses emerged from the Tampa Bay Derby to the Churchill Downs winner’s circle. Those would be Street Sense in 2007 and Super Saver in 2010. Tapwrit parlayed his 2017 Tampa Bay Derby win into the Belmont Stakes title later that spring.

Which brings us to a key plot twist in this year’s 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby, which provides 50-20-10-5 Derby points to its top four finishers. Todd Pletcher trained both Super Saver and Tapwrit. Between 2013 and 2017, Pletcher trained four winners, including Verrazano (2013), Carpe Diem (2015), Destin (2016), and Tapwrit (2017). His five Tampa Bay Derby victories — he also won with Limehouse in 2004 — is the event standard.

So who emerges from Pletcher’s barn this year? Promise Keeper (8/1) and Unbridled Honor (20/1), neither of whom are the favorite in the 12-horse field.

Candy Man Rocket falls into favorite status

That would be Bill Mott’s Candy Man Rocket (2/1). This is not a great reach, considering what happened the last time we saw the son of Candy Ride. That was his length victory over stablemate Nova Rags in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes a month ago. Candy Man Rocket didn’t exactly blast off in deep stretch. Jockey Junior Alvarado hit the turbo button at the top of the stretch and held on until the wire.

But a win is a win, and opening your 2-year-old campaign 2-for-2 never hurts. Mott won this race two years ago with Tacitus, so he’s familiar with the neighborhood. Candy Man Rocket clocked two good workouts since that victory, and this race sets up nicely for his stalking style. His top Equibase Speed Figure of 94 is second in the field behind King of Dreams’ 96.

That said, Candy Man Rocket is a vulnerable favorite, even on a familiar track. There is value in this Tampa Bay Derby. Perhaps not the same value we saw last year, when King Guillermo sprung a 49/1 upset. But again, you can’t discount Pletcher here, and Promise Keeper gives Pletcher his customary legitimate threat.

Mud could fulfill Promise Keeper’s promise

Two starts back, Promise Keeper lost a six-furlong maiden race to Candy Man Rocket. After finishing fourth there, he rebounded to win a one-turn mile on a sloppy Gulfstream Park track by five lengths. This came with a 19-point Equibase jump, from 71 to 90. That Promise Keeper proved mud is no obstacle bodes well for this race, considering there is an 80% chance of rain in Tampa on Saturday.

Again, all it takes for Promise Keeper to keep Pletcher’s Tampa Bay Derby promise is a moderate speed boost and the ability to stay with Candy Man Rocket, and whatever early speed comes along. That’s likely Boca Boy, who stalked Candy Man Rocket before falling back in the stretch.

Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby/Tampa Bay Downs

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. My Liberty, 30/1 (Tomas Mejia/Maria Mejia)
  2. Super Strong, 8/1 (Antonio Gallardo/Saffie Joseph Jr.)
  3. Candy Man Rocket, 2/1 (Junior Alvarado/Bill Mott)
  4. King of Dreams, 20/1 (Samy Camacho/Juan Carlos Avila)
  5. Boca Boy, 15/1 (Angel Arroyo/Cheryl Winebaugh)
  6. Awesome Gerry, 15/1 (Hector Diaz Jr/Saffie Joseph Jr.)
  7. Moonlite Strike, 20/1 (Daniel Centeno/Saffie Joseph Jr.)
  8. Hidden Stash, 4/1 (Rafael Bejarano/Victoria Oliver)
  9. Unbridled Honor, 20/1 (Julien Leparoux/Todd Pletcher)
  10. Helium, 6/1 (Jose Ferrer/Mark Casse)
  11. Promise Keeper, 8/1 (Luis Saez/Todd Pletcher)
  12. Sittin On Go, 20/1 (Robby Alvarado/Dale Romans)

The “Other Pletcher” – Unbridled Honor – brings a good stalking style to a race that fits that. He also brings a 15-point Equibase improvement from his last outing, a one-mile, 40-yard maiden race last month. With several of his counterparts owning Equibases in the low- and mid-90s, Unbridled Honor and his 85 Equibase needs at least another 10-point jump to contend here.

That brings us to Hidden Stash (4/1), last seen rallying for third in the Sam F. Davis. He owns two 1 1/16-mile victories, closing his 2-year-old season winning a race apiece at that distance at Keeneland and Churchill Downs. He too needs to find another gear for his closing style to prevail.

The ‘L’ word becomes a Tampa Bay Derby factor

One more variable bears mentioning. Both Pletcher horses will run without Lasix for the first time, since the anti-bleeding drug is forbidden in Derby preps. How they run without it will provide a guide going forward on the Derby trail.

The pick: Promise Keeper. We’ll take our chances on the Lasix and go with the value and running style. And Promise Keeper’s style – especially on a wet track – fits this race perfectly. The goal is simple: make Candy Man Rocket, who was saved by the wire at the Sam F. Davis, finish his race and beat you in deep stretch.

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