The Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs is the richest event on Saturday’s North American racing calendar. Worldwide, the only race offering a greater purse is the $400,000 Maktoum Challenge Round 3 at Meydan, the final United Arab Emirates prep for the March 31 Dubai World Cup.

A field of 11 3-year-olds (after Friday’s scratch of Take Charge Indy), several with Kentucky Derby aspirations, will enter the starting gate for the mile-and-a-sixteenth Tampa Bay Derby, slated as the 11th race on a 12-race Tampa Bay Downs Festival Day card that begins at 12:27 p.m.

Also on tap are the Grade III, $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes for older fillies and mares on the turf at a distance of about a mile-and-an-eighth and the $100,000 Stonewall Farm Ocala Suncoast Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at a mile-and-40-yards.

The festivities begin at 10 a.m. with the final edition of the track’s Morning Glory Club for the 2011-12 season. Track announcer Richard Grunder will discuss the upcoming stakes action with Steven Crist of the Daily Racing Form. Early arrivals can watch horses work out and enjoy free coffee and donuts.

The Tampa Bay Derby has come a long way since its inception in 1981 as the $50,000 Budweiser Tampa Bay Derby. The winner of the Oldsmar oval’s first showcase, Belmont Farm’s Paristo, was an undistinguished 1-for-13 entering the race. But something clicked that day, because he won the Illinois Derby the following month, finished third in the Preakness and was second in the Ohio Derby in his final start.

A year later, owner Louis Wolfson of Harbor View Farm and Affirmed fame captured the Tampa Bay Derby with Reinvested, another horse with light credentials who developed into a major player. On the first Saturday in May, Reinvested finished third in the Kentucky Derby behind Gato Del Sol and Laser Light. That fall, Reinvested won the Grade II Super Derby at Louisiana Downs.

Casual observers who think the Tampa Bay Derby started to gain national attention during the 2007 running – used by Street Sense as a springboard to his Kentucky Derby triumph – might consider the third running in 1983.

The track’s reputation as a deep and demanding surface that promotes fitness and affords horsemen a realistic perspective on their runner’s stamina and ability had already begun to spread.

Enter into Oldsmar Slew o’ Gold, a son of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew owned in partnership by Seattle Slew’s owners, Karen and Mickey Taylor and Jim and Sally Hill.

Trainer Sidney Watters Jr. chose to prep Slew o’ Gold in the Sam F. Davis Stakes, where he finished third. It was a similar story in the Tampa Bay Derby, in which Slew o’ Gold could only manage second to Morganmorganmorgan, who remains the only Oklahoma-bred to win the race.

As future events proved, Slew o’ Gold was just getting started. From Tampa Bay Downs he went to New York, where he won the Wood Memorial before a fourth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, a victory in the Grade II Peter Pan and a runner-up finish to Caveat in the Belmont.

That fall, Slew o’ Gold won the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup en route to earning an Eclipse Award for leading 3-year-old male. Another Eclipse as top handicap male followed in 1984 thanks to victories in the Whitney, Woodward, Marlboro Cup and Jockey Club Gold Cup and a second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Slew o’ Gold remains the only Tampa Bay Derby equine participant to be enshrined in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., proving how tough the race can be to win.

The graded-stakes committee took notice, elevating the race to Grade III status for its fourth running in 1984.

Another great horse, With Approval, found out in 1989 how difficult it is to win the Tampa Bay Derby. The Ontario-bred Kinghaven Farms star ran second to Storm Predictions, who already had nine career victories entering the race.

Under the tutelage of trainer Roger Attfield, With Approval went north of the border to win the Canadian Triple Crown – the Queen’s Plate, Prince of Wales and Breeders’ Stakes. He also gained acclaim as a major star on the turf, setting a world record of 2:10.20 in the 1 3/8-mile Bowling Green at Belmont.

Both With Approval and Attfield are members of the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.

Also on the list of major stars to finish second in the Tampa Bay Derby are Menifee (1999), Bluegrass Cat (2006) and Any Given Saturday (2007).

Menifee, owned by Arthur Hancock and James Stone and trained by Elliott Walden, ran second to Pineaff in the Tampa Bay Derby. Menifee next won the Blue Grass, and in the Kentucky Derby came flying late, just failing to catch Charismatic. Menifee was second in the Preakness and eighth in the Belmont and won the Haskell that summer.

Menifee and 1988 Tampa Bay Derby winner Cefis are the only Tampa Bay Derby entrants to compete in all three legs of the U.S. Triple Crown.

After winning the 2006 Sam F. Davis, Bluegrass Cat could only manage a second to Davis runner-up Deputy Glitters in the Tampa Bay Derby. Although Deputy Glitters added the Ohio Derby that summer, Bluegrass Cat emerged as the better of the pair with seconds in the Kentucky Derby (to Barbaro), Belmont (to Jazil) and Travers and a victory in the Haskell.

Bluegrass Cat’s trainer Todd Pletcher again had to settle for second in the Tampa Bay Derby in 2007 after winning the Sam F. Davis with Any Given Saturday. Despite falling short against Street Sense in both Oldsmar and Louisville, Any Given Saturday had an excellent season, winning the Dwyer, Haskell and Brooklyn in succession.

After losing its Grade III status for the 1990 running – won by Champagneforashley, one of two New York-breds to capture the race – the Tampa Bay Derby did not regain graded status until 2002.

Neverthless, during those 12 years, a veritable “Who’s Who” of top jockeys and trainers invaded the Tampa Bay area to claim the top prize. In fact, from 1988-1999, five Hall of Fame jockeys won the Tampa Bay Derby: Eddie Maple (Cefis, 1988); Jacinto Vasquez (Champagneforashley, 1990); Jerry Bailey (Zede, 1997); Pat Day (Parade Ground, 1998); and Jose Santos (Pineaff, 1999).

Edgar Prado joined that exclusive fraternity aboard Sun King in 2005.

The list of Hall of Fame trainers who can claim a Tampa Bay Derby victory is almost equally as impressive. It includes Woody Stephens (Cefis); William Mott (Zede); Nick Zito (Sun King); and Carl Nafzger (Street Sense, 2007).

Watters, the trainer of the aforementioned Slew o’ Gold, the 1983 Tampa Bay Derby runner-up, is also in the Hall.

After the 2010 running, won by Odysseus, with eventual Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver third, the Tampa Bay Derby was assigned its current Grade II status. That was due in large measure to the success of Street Sense, Any Given Saturday and 2009 Tampa Bay Derby winner Musket Man, who ran third in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Street Sense and Super Saver are the only Tampa Bay Derby contestants to win a Kentucky Derby. Street Sense joined Menifee as a Preakness runner-up from the Tampa Bay Derby in 2007.

Florida-breds won six of the first 13 runnings of the Tampa Bay Derby, but the Bluegrass State put together an impressive string of nine in a row from 1995-2003 and is responsible for 17 winners in the 31 runnings. Florida counts eight, New York two and Oklahoma, Texas, Maryland and Alberta one apiece.

Interestingly, every Tampa Bay Derby winner has been sired by a different horse. That would change if Prospective wins; his sire, Malibu Moon, is the father of 2010 winner Odysseus.

Five Tampa Bay Derby winners entered the race with only one victory to their credit, which should encourage the connections of six of Saturday’s entrants, including Sam F. Davis Stakes winner Battle Hardened. The group includes Paristo (1981), Marco Bay (1993), Gadzook (1995), Wheelaway (2000) and Deputy Glitters (2006).

Storm Predictions, who upset With Approval in 1989, won 16 races in his career, the most for any Tampa Bay Derby winner. He raced 67 times, as did 1988 Tampa Bay Derby winner Cefis – the most of any Tampa Bay Derby winner.

The 31 winners of the Tampa Bay Derby averaged a hefty 26.2 starts in their careers.

Nine Tampa Bay Derby winners have used the Sam F. Davis as their final prep. Phantom Jet (1987), Speedy Cure (1991), Marco Bay (1993), Thundering Storm (1996) and Burning Roma (2001) all won the Davis en route to their Tampa Bay Derby triumphs.

Morganmorganmorgan was third in the 1983 Davis, as were Musket Man (2009) and Watch Me Go (2011). Deputy Glitters was second in the 2006 Davis.

A female jockey has yet to win the Tampa Bay Derby; that will not change in 2012, barring a late jockey change.

Three women trainers have won the race, starting with Sarah Lundy, the conditioner of Marco Bay, in 1993. The others are Heather Giglio (Burning Roma, 2001) and Kathleen O’Connell (Watch Me Go, 2011).

Giglio brought Burning Roma, a Grade I winner as a 2-year-old, back to Tampa Bay Downs in 2003 and ’04 to win back-to-back runnings of the Tampa Bay Breeders’ Cup Stakes.

For a race that has been only been in existence since 1981, the history of the Tampa Bay Derby is rich, indeed. And with the Kentucky Derby eight weeks way, we’ll soon find out which of the 12 entrants can move on to even bigger and better things in their still-developing careers.