Dogwood Stable's favored Limehouse answered a major question about his distance capabilities, catching the leaders late to register a neck victory over Mustanfar in the $250,000 Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) Sunday.
The traditional highlight of Tampa's 93-day meet set a handle record of $5,353,782 on Sunday while the track recorded the third largest attendance in its Derby day history when a crowd of 8,131 spun the turnstiles.
Limehouse, who had never won beyond seven furlongs, got a well-timed ride from Pat Day, who was aboard the chestnut Grand Slam colt for the first time.
Fifth on the final turn, Day angled Limehouse out four wide for the stretch run and the Todd Pletcher-trained Florida bred responded to left-handed whipping to get up late. The final time for the 1 1/16-mile sophomore test was 1:43 4/5.
He nipped Mustanfar, ridden by Joseph Judice, who made a bold move along the rail to get into contention on the final turn, then dropped back in the stretch before coming on again to draw even in the final 40 yards, just missing.
Day replaced John Velazquez, who rode Roar Emotion in the Rampart Handicap (gr. II) at Gulfstream instead, aboard Limehouse.
"[Limehouse] was very professional," Day said. "At about the seven sixteenths pole he went to scrambling just a little bit but got on his feet quickly and held his position.
"Off the [second] turn I put him to the task and he responded beautifully. He got by the leaders then got to waiting just a little but he got back into it right about the sixteenth pole as the competition heated up and he went up."
Pletcher noticed the brief hesitation approaching the far turn which momentarily raised his eyebrows a bit.
"It looked like maybe he wasn't going to fire around the turn," Pletcher said. "Then he kind of took off again. Maybe there was some concern at some point, but knowing this colt's style and knowing Pat's style, I wasn't too worried. He was in stalking position."
Then in one of racing's great understatements the trainer said, "You know Pat's always going to save some horse."
Mustanfar was a length in front of second choice Swingforthefences, who looked like a winner after drawing even with pacesetter Very Formal M.D. a furlong from home, but hung a bit for jockey Edgar Prado.
Very Formal M.D. led the field through early fractions of :23 4/5 and :47 3/5 and 1:11 4/5.
Zackocity, Kaufy Mate, Very Formal M.D., Tap Dancer and Misguided Left completed the order of finish.
Limehouse emerged as a leading 2-year-old for Pletcher with wins in the Chimney and Bashford Manor (gr. III) at Churchill Downs. But he was well beaten in the Saratoga Special (gr. II), the Hopeful (gr. I) and the 1 1/16-mile Lane's End Futurity (gr. II) at Keeneland, his only previous two-turn try.
After re-grouping, Limehouse began his 3-year-old campaign with a 2 1/4-length win in the seven-furlong Hutcheson at Gulfstream Park Feb. 14.
He has now won five of eight career starts with earnings of $500,435. The win Sunday was worth $150,000.
Pletcher mentioned the Bluegrass Stakes (gr. 1) at Keeneland as a possibility for Limehouse's next step.
"I think the Bluegrass is an awfully logical spot considering the colt broke his maiden at Keeneland and ran a bang up race in the Breeder's Cup Futurity there. We'll put our heads together in next few days."
Cheryl A. Curtin bred Limehouse, who is out of Dixieland Blues, by Dixieland Blues. He was purchased for $140,000 at Fasig-Tipton in August 2002.
The 9-10 choice paid $3.80, $2.60 and $2.20. Mustanfar returned $4.20 and $2.40. Swingforthefences showed for $2.40. The $2 exacta was worth $21.40.