While the Florida-bred colt Watch Me Go seeks to make it 2-for-2 against Kentucky-bred gelding Crimson Knight in the mile-and-a-sixteenth Challenger on the main track, there is a solid possibility neither will be favored in the competitive seven-horse field.
The others are I’m Steppin’ It Up, a 4-year-old colt from the barn of Anthony Pecoraro who won the Kent Stakes at Delaware and the Chief Tamanaco Stakes at Belmont back-to-back last fall, but has yet to recapture that form at Tampa Bay Downs; 5-year-old Seruni, who scored in the Labor Day Stakes at Mountaineer in West Virginia last September; and 4-year-old Imperial Czar, victorious in the American Dreamer Stakes last July at Calder in Miami.
Besides Crimson Knight, the other Challenger entries looking for their first stakes score are Wiki, a 5-year-old gelding owned by Midwest Thoroughbreds Inc. and trained by leading Tampa Bay Downs conditioner Jamie Ness, and 4-year-old Fort Larned.
Wiki, Fort Larned and I’m Steppin’ It Up finished first, fourth and fifth, respectively, in a Feb. 4 handicap at Tampa Bay Downs at the Challenger distance.
The 2011 Tampa Bay Derby produced one of the most exciting – and unexpected – finishes in the race’s history. Watch Me Go, a 43-1 shot, prevailed by a neck over the Gerald Bennett-trained Crimson Knight, who had been claimed by Bennett out of his previous start from the barn of Thomas Proctor.
Both have had spotty results since, although Crimson Knight finished third last June’s Oliver Stakes at Indiana Downs and second in the Capital City Stakes at Penn National, both on the turf.
In his previous start last Friday, Crimson Knight finished second by a neck in an allowance/optional claiming turf event to Wait’n On Sumthin. Ademar Santos has been named to ride Crimson Knight.
“It was a hard-run race, but he came out of it real good,” Bennett said. “He’s just starting to come to hand now and getting back to the way he was when he was running against 3-year-olds last year.
“He is getting better and better each race. When he gets the way he is now, he runs hard every time,” Bennett said.
Watch Me Go, who is 4-for-14 lifetime with earnings of $337,595, has not won since the Tampa Bay Derby. After a sixth-place finish in the Grade III Illinois Derby, Watch Me Go – a son of West Acre-Sabbath Song, by Deputy Minister – finished 18th of 19 in the Kentucky Derby.
Most recently, Watch Me Go finished a good second in the Feb. 11 Super Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs to Action Andy at a distance of seven furlongs. He worked six furlongs Feb. 22 in 1:16 2/5 and O’Connell is delighted with his progress.
“It was real easy, all on his own, and he galloped out strong,” O’Connell said. “I didn’t want to overdo his works between races. I think a route will help my horse, and the fact we have a race underneath us is another positive.”
Watch Me Go carries 122 pounds, conceding 4-to-6 pounds to his foes.
Scott Spieth, who has worked out Watch Me Go twice, has been named as the jockey. Tampa Bay Downs leading jockey Leandro Goncalves rode both Watch Me Go and Wiki in their previous starts and will ride Wiki in the Challenger.
Wiki’s victory Feb. 4, by a half-length from Successful Mission, was an exceptional performance, earning him a 96 Beyer figure. A repeat of that form by the Kentucky-bred son of Arch-Database will make him tough to beat.
On Thursday’s card, Goncalves won a race for the 15th consecutive day at Tampa Bay Downs, winning the seventh – a one-mile turf allowance – aboard the 4-year-old filly Frontside for owner Town and Country Farms, Corp. and trainer Eduardo Caramori.
Goncalves has 67 victories for the meeting, 29 ahead of current runner-up and 2010-11 track champion Ronnie Allen, Jr.
Allen and his younger brother Mike Allen won three of the first four races on Thursday’s card. Ronnie swept the early daily double, winning the first race on 6-year-old gelding Rock It for trainer Gerald Bennett and the second on 5-year-old mare Battle of T Giants for Yvon Belsoeur. Mike Allen won the fourth race on 29-1 shot Sippewissett, a 3-year-old gelding who rewarded trainer Ida Paquette with her first victory of the meeting.
Jockeys Jorge L. Vargas and Rosemary Homeister, Jr. also made two trips to the winner’s circle Thursday, with Homeister sweeping the late daily double.
In the third race, Peruvian apprentice jockey Erik Barbaran won aboard 3-year-old gelding Fly Dixie for his father, trainer Horacio Barbaran. It was Erik’s eighth victory of the meeting, tying him atop the track’s apprentice standings with Eddie Jurado.
Preparations are under way for Tampa Bay Downs Festival Day on March 10, featuring the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby; the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes; and the $100,000 Stonewall Farm Ocala Suncoast Stakes. There will be a special noon post time.
A commemorative cooler bag will be given out with paid admission while supplies last. The winner of the Kentucky Derby has emerged from the Tampa Bay Derby twice in the past five years: Street Sense in 2007 and Super Saver in 2010.
Live racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Friday with a first-race post time of 12:25 p.m. The track is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at the Downs Golf Practice Facility.