Trainer Barclay Tagg had prophetic words of wisdom for jockey Eibar Coa before he sent Eric Fein’s Big Truck to the $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III)(VIDEO).
“I said, ‘Ride to be second, and if something happens to War Pass, we win,’” Tagg told reporters just moments after the Hook and Laddercolt wore down Todd Pletcher trainee Atoned in a neck-and-neck battle March 15. “I thought we were the second-best horse.”
Tagg, of course, was deferring to Robert LaPenta’s unbeaten War Pass, sent off at odds of 1-9 in a field of seven and clearly expected by the on-track crowd of 12,746 to score his sixth consecutive victory in the 1 1/6-mile event. But twisted circumstances put the Nick Zito trainee in a situation he’d never tried before; when a bad break caused the previously unbeaten frontrunner to get pinched back at the start, he never recovered and finished last.
"You saw what happened (at the break)," Zito said. "But he got moving and I thought he was in a good position going down the back, but when (Cornelio Velasquez) asked him, nothing happened. I don't know what happened. I just don't know."
War Pass was restless in the gate and, after breaking fourth, was bumped as Gentleman James and Make Me Zach dueled for the early lead. Behind and between those two, he was unable to find running room and was hustled to maintain a position five-wide off the pace through early fractions of :23.73 and :47.44. Cigar Man raced fourth.
Big Truck rated fifth under Coa and Atoned was sixth, but began a move six wide while going three-quarters in 1:11.50. The field hit the head of the stretch with Atoned flying past Make Me Zach to claim the lead through a mile in 1:37.62. Big Truck was in close pursuit, and those two battled it down to the wire while longshot Dynamic Wayne got up for third and Make Me Zach faded to fourth.
“He trains like the best horse in the world, he just hasn’t proved it on the racetrack," Fein said. "Barclay has taken horses to the (Kentucky) Derby before, has won the Derby before, and has told us how good he is, but come race day he hasn’t proved it. So, thank God today he did. I actually started getting nervous at about the half-mile pole when I saw War Pass wasn’t on the lead. I thought maybe today might be our day, and we were at the turn when we finally got out of the trouble we were in. We got clear, and I thought, ‘I know this horse can come.’”
Sure enough, Big Truck passed Atoned in the final 40 yards under strong handling to claim the victory by a neck. The final time was 1:44.25. Cigar Man, Gentleman James, and War Pass completed the order of finish.
“I knew my horse was going to improve from the last race," said Coa. "I didn't know if we were going to be good enough to beat War Pass, but my hope was that War Pass wouldn’t like the track today. When he finally got behind some horses for the first time, and he didn’t have room (coming out of ) the gate... I had him beat."
Of War Pass, Velasquez said, "He just didn’t go today like he always has. At the half-mile, he wanted to go to the lead but he just couldn’t go. Today he just didn’t try like he has in the past. I don’t know. He just stayed back and couldn’t take the lead. He did not run today; he’s a nice horse, but I don't think he liked the track."
Big Truck returned $16.40, $5.80, and $25.20. Atoned and jockey John Velazquez paid $6.60 and $27.80, while Dynamic Wayne and jockey Pablo Morales brought $76.40. The winning trifecta paid $439.20.
Bred in New York by A. Lakin & Sons out of the Go for Gin mare Just a Ginny, Big Truck came off a half-length loss to Fierce Wind in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Feb. 16. Dynamic Wayne was fourth in that event, while Bill Mott trainee Z Humor finished fifth. Big Truck's lone stakes win came as a 2-year-old in the Bertram F. Bongard Stakes, a restricted event at Belmont. The colt’s record now stands at 3-1-1 from seven starts. His earnings total $336,880.
Of a potential trip to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), Fein was enthusiastic.
"We hope this truck stops in Louisville," he said.