Steve Haskin's Weekend Analysis: Tampa Tussle Highlights Derby Preps

Steve Haskin's Weekend Analysis: Tampa Tussle Highlights Derby Preps
Photo: Alexander Barkoff
Champion Street Sense, winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, faces a stiff challenge in the Tampa Bay Derby.
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The Derby trail hits four fronts this weekend, with all eyes on Tampa Bay Downs, Oaklawn Park, Santa Anita, and Sunland Park. Although the races in general are more about potential stars than proven stars, that certainly doesn’t apply to the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) which features the match-up of the year, so far.

Any Given Saturday, with a victory over the deep, quirky Tampa Bay surface, would seem to have an edge over 2-year-old champion Street Sense, who hasn’t run since demolishing his foes in the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I). But trainer Carl Nafzger is not looking for victories as much as good efforts from the son of Street Cry and a steady progression toward the first Saturday in May. Even if Street Sense should lose this race and the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), Nafzger would not be disappointed as long as the colt ran well enough to convince the trainer he was ready to peak on Derby Day.

Most people feel the colt’s 10-length romp in the Juvenile was a fluke because of a so-called rail bias. But after the huge efforts this year by his vanquished foes -- Circular Quay, Great Hunter, Scat Daddy, and Stormello -- just imagine if that race wasn’t a fluke at all, and that’s how good this colt really is. Although it is highly unlikely he’s 10 lengths, or even five lengths, better than those horses, it does at least add a fascinating dimension to the Tampa Bay Derby.

The only concern, in addition to Street Sense’s schedule of having only two Derby preps, is the fact that the Tampa Bay Derby was not his intended first start. That was supposed to be the 7 1/2-furlong Hutcheson Stakes (gr. II), but Nafzger left open the possibility of going somewhere else, which he did. And this was a much wiser decision, considering how much fitter this race will get him than the Hutcheson.

Not really knowing how good this horse is, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him defeat Any Given Saturday first crack out, just as it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him come up a bit short. After all, Nafzger does not have him fully cranked by any means, and Any Given Saturday is one the leading Derby contenders in the country, who is going to be very tough in here.

This certainly looks like a two-horse race, but is there anyone else who might be capable of popping a big one and charge in to the Derby picture?

Delightful Kiss, trained by former jockey Pete Anderson, has a victory and two second-place finishes on the dirt, and in his last start, he blew by top-class horses such as Sightseeing and Chelokee to win a mile allowance race at Gulfstream by 1 1/2 lengths. He would seem to need a strong, contentious pace to set up his big closing kick. If he gets it, he could make his presence felt.

All I Can Get, runner-up to Any Given Saturday in the Sam F. Davis, set the pace in that race, but went his half in :48, coming off six sprint races, so we don’t know how much speed he’ll have this time. The Nick Zito-trained Most Distinguished has shown good speed, but is more of a stalker. If no one wants to commit, don’t be surprised to see Zito send him, especially with all the bottom he has after eight career starts. And if that ploy doesn’t work, Zito has the late-running maiden winner Optimistic Steve in there as well. But these colts are not in the same league as Street Sense and Any Given Saturday – at least not yet – and Zito, one would think, would be happy to pick up a third and a graded stakes placing.

In the Rebel Stakes (gr. III) at Oaklawn, it’s mostly about two inexperienced colts trying to pull off a rush job and throw their name in the Derby hat. No one has a clue how good the spectacular maiden winners Curlin and Flying First Class are, or how they’re going to run stretching out, especially with such little experience. What they do have going for them is the fact that this is not a particularly strong field, with Teuflesberg and Officer Rocket, the one-two finishers in the Southwest Stakes, being the ones to beat. Both are solid horses, but not in the top tier of Derby contenders.

Xchanger, U D Ghetto, Going Ballistic, and Wannabeinclued have all fared well in stakes company, but need to step up.

Look for Flying First Class, Curlin, and Teuflesberg to show good speed, but it’s the one who is able to settle the best that should be in the best shape in the final furlong, when Officer Rocket starts rolling. Even if Curlin should pull this off and go on to the Arkansas Derby (gr. II), that would only be the third start of his career; not how you want to go into the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. Flying First Class would have only four starts, so we really don’t know what we’re dealing with.

The San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) drew only six-horses, with virtually no stakes credentials. Only Grapelli, with a third in the San Rafael (gr. II), has any Derby resume to this point. The son of Thunder Gulch, trained by, who else, Todd Pletcher,  has been working sharply and gets blinkers. He will be the main stretch threat in here.

Like the Rebel, it is the inexperienced Cobalt Blue, a six-furlong maiden winner in 1:09 last time out, who will command most of the attention. And again, we have no idea what we’re dealing with. But Doug O’Neill likes this son of Golden Missile  a great deal, and a big effort here will catapult him into Derby contention.

Bob Baffert has always been high on Air Commander, winner of his last two, but even Baffert admits the son of Point Given  has to get a lot faster to continue on the Derby trail. He is a big, late-developing colt, so he should be able to improve off his 1 1/8-mile allowance victory only 13 days ago, run in a slow 1:51.

One horse to watch is Level Red, a consistent son of Aptitude, who can run on or just off the lead, and is coming off a nice allowance score on Feb. 18 for Dave Hofmans. Four races back, he was second in a maiden race to top Derby contender Ravel.

Finally, we have Sunday’s WinStar Derby, a $600,000 race that does Derby hopefuls no good as far as graded earnings. Baffert will send out the tenacious Law Breaker, who has five career starts, all dogfights. This is a tough colt who will not back down from a challenge.

Forty Grams is one to watch after his third in the Southwest Stakes for Steve Asmussen. He was brilliant at Fair Grounds, winning both his starts, including a 13-length allowance score. He likely didn’t handle the Oaklawn track as well, so here he is at Sunland Park.

The local hero, Song of Navarone, surprised everyone by finishing a strong third in the Sham Stakes (gr. III) at 26-1 behind Ravel and Liquidity, in which he battled on the lead most of the way, and now returns to Sunland, where he was beaten a neck in last year’s Riley Allison Futurity.

Others to watch are Borderland Derby winner Takedown; runner-up Jack Hes Tops, who came back to romp in an allowance sprint; third-place finisher Game of Skill; and Solemn Promise, an impressive maiden winner at Gulfstream for Dale Romans in his career debut.

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