Tampa Bay Downs has been evolving rapidly from Florida's other winter track into a circuit that has to be taken seriously at the highest level. It has produced a couple of Derby winners in the past decade and chances are good that the two betting favorites in this year's Derby will have come from the Sam F. Davis and Tampa Bay Derby.

In other Derby doings, Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown have the opportunity to inject some much needed star power into this year's downgraded Wood Memorial at their home citcuit.


I’ve got my Final Four.

No, not that one. But if you’re interested, my bracket has Villanova (winning) with Arizona, North Carolina and Kansas.

In the Final Four more germane to this site, I have become convinced there are only four horses with what it takes to win the Kentucky Derby—McCraken, Tapwrit, Gunnevera and Classic Empire. I can‘t see anyone else unless American Anthem freaks in Saturday’s Rebel. (It’s amazing the political correctness tyrants haven’t done a Washington Redskins on this name.)

This is the year Tampa Bay Downs truly came of age. If McCraken wins the Blue Grass—he will be heavily favored—and Todd Pletcher finds a winning final prep for Tapwrit, it’s possible, if not likely, that the first and second choices in Derby betting will have come out of the Sam F. Davis and Tampa Bay Derby.

I haven’t wavered in my enthusiasm for Tapwrit, who did everything I expected and more in the Tampa Bay Derby. But the ankle issue McCraken had was an influence in briefly downgrading him. Now that he is back in serious training and doing well, it is impossible to ignore the ease with which he handled Tapwrit in the S.F. Davis and the fact that the 2-3-4 horses in that race came back to run 1-2-3 in the Tampa Derby.

Also McCraken fits the recent Derby profile of being undefeated (so far) as a 3-year-old. It was only one race, but he was undefeated as a juvenile, too.

This said, there is a hidden similarity between the two most recent races of Tapwrit and Gunnevera. The latter was soundly beaten by Irish War Cry in the Holy Bull after being steadied around the far turn. With an unobstructed trip, he turned the tables in the Fountain of Youth.

Tapwrit was stuck behind horses on the inside entering the stretch of the Davis, losing momentum, as McCraken circled the field and assumed command. He was gone before Jose Ortiz finally extricated Tapwrit, who closed resolutely to be much the second best. With a cleaner trip in the TB Derby, despite minor gate problems, Tapwrit demolished his field. He didn’t beat the absent McCraken but Tapwrit did smash the track record McCraken had established in the Davis.

There were about 15 seconds last Saturday when I didn’t think this would be the column I would be writing. As Mastery crossed the wire with his leave-no-doubts score in the San Felipe, I said out loud, “Louisville, we have a favorite.” What happened to Mastery in the next few moments does not need to be rehashed.

But Mastery’s demolition of his San Felipe rivals exposed their various weaknesses, mostly having to do with distance limitations, which, for me, eliminate them from serious Derby consideration. West Coast horses can't win every year.

In the latest sign of the times, the San Felipe on the Pacific Coast went off before the Tampa Bay Derby in the East. The explanation is familiar. Santa Anita wanted to keep the six-horse San Felipe out of the Pick 6, so it was carded as the fifth race. Rainbow chasing jackpot bets have surpassed important stakes as racing’s promotional priority.

As the calendar turned from 2016 to 2017, the three Derby favorites were Classic Empire, McCraken and Mastery. All have been sent to the sidelines during Derby prep season. Fortunately, it appears Classic Empire and McCraken are coming back.

If those two, Tapwrit and Gunnevera make it to the starting gate in Louisville, the rest are supporting players.

Do right thing for NYRA

Getting back to Pletcher’s decision over how best to get Tapwrit to Louisville at the top of his game, it’s doubtful the trainer will make the same mistake he did with Destin a year ago. Pletcher put Destin on the shelf for eight weeks after he won the S.F. Davis and Tampa Bay Derby.

It didn’t work so well. Destin checked in sixth in Louisville. With a more conventional five-week gap before his next start in the Belmont, Destin missed winning the third jewel of the Triple Crown by a lip.

Pletcher is not only a trainer for the ages, he is an avid student of racing history. The first rule of history is learn from your mistakes so you don't make them again. Unless he is stubborn and anxious to prove a point—traits unseen to this point--Pletcher is unlikely to sit on Tapwrit until the first Saturday in May.

The Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby come up too soon on April 1. The Arkansas Derby on April 15 is only three weeks out from Louisville. This suggests that if Tapwrit has another Derby prep it will be on April 8, when the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial will be run. (The Santa Anita Derby is also scheduled that day.)

McCraken is committed to the Blue Grass. Classic Empire also was headed there until this week when the possibility was raised that he would go to the Arkansas Derby. Dale Romans all but committed J Boys Echo to the Blue Grass in the post-race winner’s circle after the Gotham. Why take on this bunch over easier pickings elsewhere, especially when elsewhere is home?

This makes the Wood, which has none of the top Derby hopefuls on its list of probables, as the prudent choice for Tapwrit’s final prep. The Wood is the right choice for another reason. It lost its Grade 1 status this year, so it is in desperate need of star power; ideally a colt who could double up at Churchill Downs.

Tapwrit fits both bills. What’s more, Pletcher has built his fame and fortune in New York. This is a chance for him to give something back without sacrificing anything regarding his horse.

Chad Brown is in a similar situation. He also is plotting where to go for the final Derby prep for Fountain of Youth runnerup Practical Joke. He, too, could do something praiseworthy for his home circuit, which also could be the most advantageous course of action for Practical Joke, who still hasn’t answered the question of whether he can be effective around two turns.

The main track at Aqueduct has always been friendly to horses with speed going two turns. Another factor is Practical Joke is undefeated in three starts in New York, albeit at Saratoga and Belmont.

It isn’t often you get to do the right thing and the advantageous thing. New York stalwarts Pletcher and Brown have this opportunity next month.

Boycott is on

A reminder: West Coast racing activist and advocate Andy Asaro has called for a boycott of betting on Santa Anita from March 23-26. This is to protest Santa Anita taking 15 percent of the pool of Jackpot 6 bets even when a race is declared an all because of a surface switch, meaning you can't win but you can lose.

For some inexplicable, but probably political reason (perhaps jealousy of the leadership role Asaro has taken) the Horseplayers Association of North American (HANA) has chosen not to join the boycott so it is more essential than usual that everyday horseplayers do their part to protect their rights and keep race tracks from taking them for granted.

Miami, March 16, 2017