OLDSMAR, Fla., March 16, 2008--

The horses for the 28th Tampa Bay Derby were filing into the paddock, one by one. With arms outstretched and fingers wrapped around digital cameras, the assembled among a record crowd of 12,746 waited for the star to arrive. And the champion is always the last one to enter the ring.

Atoned, glistening with health as he walked by, and the businesslike Big Truck, were already taking their turns around the saddling enclosure. Shortly thereafter, there began a stirring in the crowd, which turned into a buzz, which turned almost immediately hoots and howls.

“What’s all the noise about?” asked stakes coordinator Duane Dube, his question directed facetiously toward Barclay Tagg. Tagg laughed, Dube smiled, but he never broke stride as he worked his way down the line, one stall at a time.
War Pass entered the ring looking like a champion. He stopped just before stepping into the paddock area, pricked his ears and turned his head, surveying the crowd. All this took a couple of seconds, before he continued his walk toward stall number 3.

Before Nick Zito and longtime assistant Tim Poole moved in for the girth-tightening procedure, War Pass took a circumference or two of the enclosure, Zito, game face on, shared a few moments with owner Robert LaPenta until his cell phone interrupted their visit.

Horsey paparazzi, some credentialed, some not, were everywhere, shooting anything that moved. A small group of people, either the connections of one of the horses or visiting dignitaries, got as close as they could get to stall number three. When the moment was right, they began clicking or buzzing away. Some apparently had flash capability, a big no-no when pent-up racehorses are the subject.

Moments later, a young, well-dressed man with a lovely child perched atop his shoulders, approached the group and said in a nice way to no one in particular: “I love all you people to death, but please don’t flash pictures of the horse. It just sucks all the energy right out of them.”

A racetracker for more than four decades, that was news to me. Maybe it’s because I don’t know the difference between a view-finder and the backside of a horse. Just then my cell phone began to vibrate. I flipped the lid open to see whether I should take the call immediately or call back when, staring me in the face, I noted the moment in time: Sat, Mar. 15, 5:38 pm.

The Ides of March. Hmm.

The horses left their enclosures for one final tour of the ring. War Pass didn’t turn a hair, as the racetrackers say, a real professional racehorse. Either that, or he could be a little flat. It happens without rhyme or reason sometimes. Not knowing the individual well, I can’t say.

Atoned was the last horse to leave the ring. Later, he would lead the Derby pack into the stretch, absolutely running his eyeballs out. It would take a big truck to run over the top of this guy.

The horsemen followed their charges out of the paddock. As the trainer of the favorite walked by, I was tempted to say what I always say: “Run good and come back good.” But luck almost always has nothing to do with it. So instead, I said: “Have a safe trip, Nick.”

“You said it right,” Zito replied. “That’s the only thing that really matters.”

Luck, both good and bad, did have something to do with it: Bad because of the start, the brilliant speedster breaking two lengths slow away from the barrier; good in that nothing untoward happened to the colt. But War Pass and Cornelio Velasquez were buffeted about soon after the start, and were in uncomfortably close quarters on the first turn, Velasquez forced to steady as the leaders straightened away into the backstretch.

Meanwhile, Johnny Velazquez, as if reprising his winning ride on the filly in last year’s Belmont Stakes, had Atoned comfortably out in the middle of the Tampa Bay straight, way out, in fact, moving into the four path on the final turn as Velazquez attempted to pull the rug out from beneath his rival’s hooves, surging to a clear advantage into the stretch.

At this juncture War Pass also was outside in the clear but obviously struggling over the surface and going nowhere. The early favorite for the Kentucky Derby was no longer going to be an undefeated champion, and his performance will be sure to open the flood-gates of Derby possibilities in coming days even wider.

As Atoned began to open his lead, Big Truck, appearing a bit heavy-headed, was being pushed on by Eibar Coa as they began their run for second. Leaving the quarter pole, as the horses came into view, Tagg ran toward the outside paddock railing and jumped up on a fence post, straining to see Big Truck’s outside rally that reached even terms with Atoned before finally pulling away with 40 yards to go--all while trying to maintain his balance.

“When they left the three-sixteenths, I was standing on the fence screaming and trying not to fall off,” said a smiling, reflective Tagg in the winners’ circle amidst a media semi-circle. “You just never know. You’re not supposed to beat War Pass going a mile and a sixteenth. But when I looked up and didn’t see him, I thought he had on the wrong colors.”

Tagg and owner Eric Fein’s concerns about graded earnings should not weigh on them too heavily, Big Truck’s $180,000 share of the purse should be enough. Knowing in earnest that they belong, Tagg and Fein have a serious interest in staying on the Derby trail with their Tampa Derby winner. A phone call to Zito had yet to be returned as this is posted.

If you believe in omens and legends, it appears the Ides of March have claimed another victim. Either that, or the reason why it’s called gambling.