Rispoli reviews the Tampa Bay Derby and San Felipe

Umberto Rispoli's racing column for XB Net through 2021 is a recurring series that will combine previews and tips, alongside wider industry comment and all his specialist insight from the saddle.

Saturday 6th March – Tampa Bay Derby (TB) & San Felipe (SA)

“Hi guys, here are my thoughts ahead of this exciting double-bill which takes us from East Coast to West Coast this weekend…

Let’s start at Tampa Bay Downs for their Derby. The course is perhaps even sharper than last week’s Fountain of Youth venue at Gulfstream Park where our top pick Greatest Honour continued this column’s fine form, coming with a rare rattle down the straight to once again showcase his ascendant middle-distance star, as he builds for bigger battles ahead at the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby itself. Back at Tampa, be sure bear in mind that this is a rapier track with some tight turns, so the benefit going towards those horses with early pace, or at least the tactical speed to hold a position, will be pronounced.

As a result, keep your eye on front-runners or free-travelling sorts whenever you play here - and that trend should even be pivotal in this Grade 2 Road to Kentucky feature (contested over the traditional 1 1⁄16-mile trip for these prep races) which provides another shot at big Derby qualification points for the fabled first Saturday in May. So, with both ante-post ranking and Churchill Downs points up for grabs (ascribed to the top four finishers on a 50-20-10-5 scale), this promises be a fascinating, if wide-open heat.  

Candy Man Rocket - the early market favourite and mine as well. I noted this colt when winning the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes last time, putting up a huge performance under white-hot jock, Junior Alvarado. He won easy in the end that day, and has proven that he likes it fast and can handle this Downs layout. The forecast says there’s a chance of rain and showers on Saturday. But if it turns sloppy, I can only see that playing to his pacey preferences.  

¬Promise Keeper - Todd Pletcher seldom ships his horses to Tampa Bay for their health or the day-trip scenery, and this in-form handler has entered a pair of maiden winners in Promise Keeper and Unbridled Honor. In fact, Pletcher has been the most successful trainer of Tampa Bay Derby champions, winning with Limehouse in 2004 before saddling four more victors across a five-year span from 2013 to 2017. Take the hint and favour Promise Keeper over his stable companion here. Sure, it was just a maiden last time, but the colt improved for the step-up to a mile and obliged by five lengths in gate-to-wire fashion. Candy Man Rocket has also improved, though, and holds him on previous form.

Hidden Stash - another renewing rivalry with Candy Man Rocket who will also struggle to reverse the placings of their most recent encounter. Still, Hidden Stash was coming off a sizeable layoff last time, and showed a pleasing and promising attitude to rally late on. Nevertheless, the concern remains that a searching gallop will again take him off his hooves at a critical juncture as he corners around Tampa Bay.

Sittin On Go - I’ve told you to swerve this admirable sort the last twice and he’s struggled badly to be honest. I just feel they may be going to the well once too often with him. Sittin On Go clearly loves his racing but he didn’t enjoy Gulfstream Park’s lightening dirt track, so I see no reason why the sharper confines of Tampa will suit any better. Pass him over until conditions maybe return in his favour later this year. 

Super Strong - something of a wildcard, considering his recent win in a Group 1 in Puerto Rico on his only previous start. He’ll be equipped with blinkers and has the services of the talented Antonio Gallardo aboard, so he should be handy from the outset and could surprise a few.

Umberto’s Tampa Bay Derby Big Race 1-2-3:
Winner: Candy Man Rocket
Danger: Promise Keeper
Place: Hidden Stash

Over at Santa Anita, no disrespect to Tampa Bay, Saturday’s San Felipe rates a hell of a race. It looks very competitive and already boasts many of the main protagonists in the early Kentucky Derby lists, with those leading lights headed by Bob Baffert’s Life Is Good. Considering Authentic went on to win the Derby after taking the San Felipe last year, that’s no surprise – but this storied race perennially attracts all the good horses who are ready, and regularly churns out Triple Crown contenders. 

Life Is Good - as we all know, Baffert is a magician and he’s been talking as if Life Is Good is the best horse in his yard for some time now. This is just an elite seven-runner event (including two forlorn no-hopers) so most will expect this unbeaten trailblazer to boss matters from the get-go, now that he’s drawn the rail. But to my jaundiced eye he was actually getting tired as opposed to being lazy last time, and I fancy he can be overturned at cramped odds.

The Great One - this could be the horse to test Life Is Good tactically. He broke is duck in a lowly local maiden, albeit in spectacular fashion, and will want to make his presence felt early here, stepping back up to this lofty company. That could set this race up for the closers – more on them in a second. 

Medina Spirit - my selection and another with early pace to burn. However, as we saw last time, he’s also possessed of gritty staying attributes which will serve him well here at the sharp end. He plugged on pluckily to repel borders, chief of whom was Roman Centurion, and could take this any number of ways, while horses like Life Is Good appear more of a death-or-glory proposition. Indeed, he may well be better-served by reverting to a stalking gameplan here. 

Roman Centurion - well, if I fancy Medina Spirit to keep his powder dry and outstay them, then it logically follows that this tough horse won’t be far behind. Roman Centurion already looks strong and reliable over the distance. Make no mistake, he’ll be staying on after most of these have cried enough, but he just needs to stay within striking distance and not run too wide.

Dream Shake - a classy-looking sort, but appearances can be deceptive and it’s a big leap from from a maiden to a Grade 2. Moreover, the draw has not been kind, and Dream Shake will be under pressure from the moment the gates swing back. Inexperience could count him out of the placings but he’s one to keep in mind over the long run.

Umberto’s San Felipe Big Race 1-2-3:
Winner: Medina Spirit 
Danger: Roman Centurion
Place: Life is Good

Horses to follow:

Last week I was fortunate to pick up back-to-back Pasadena Stakes aboard John Sadler’s Rock Your World. It was a small-but-select field but my boy but his 4lbs in hand from Cathkin Peak to good advantage, emerging from a ding-dong game of cat-and-mouse before pulling away late for a comfortable victory. To be honest, it could’ve been put to bed earlier, but he lost his balance slightly turning for home and missed a good few strides coming into the straight before I got him on plane.

You see, he’s such a big horse. They say watching Jurassic Park is like walking with dinosaurs, but sitting atop Rock Your World is like riding one! It took me three furlongs to pull him up after the line! He’s got bags of scope and ability and could be next seen out in the Santa Anita Derby on 3rd April. Of course, that race is on the dirt as opposed to the Pasadena turf, but he covers the ground so effortlessly that I think it will be a seamless transition. Watch out for him there.

As ever, I’ve got a full book of rides this weekend from my West Coast base, but one, above all, stands out. That’s because perhaps my favourite horse in all America, Smooth Like Straight, reappears in a highly-competitive contest of 10 rivals for Saturday's Grade 1, $400,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile (turf) at Santa Anita. It’s an excellent and deep field, so I’d dearly love to break my North American hoodoo by claiming my first Grade 1 victory in the U.S. on my old pal. 

As many of you know, I’ve had to give of the ride on Hit The Road to renew my partnership with “Smooth” but my heart and soul were in sync that I had to remain loyal. That said, Hit The Road is improving every week and rates a big threat in a race of dangers. In fact, he’s already five-for-eight overall with earnings close to $300k, so you don’t need me to warn you.

Regardless, I wouldn’t swap my lad for anything and Smooth Like Straight deserves to be favourite here. He’s in great shape at home and rates my nap.

Elsewhere on the Saturday card, keep a look out for Mr Impossible who was third of nine in a rough maiden special last time. He was buffeted early and simply didn’t enjoy the run of the race. He’s really grown up since at Simon Callaghan’s, though, and should be ready to put his best hoof forward now in another uninspiring maiden in which nothing too talented seems to be lurking.

… right, that’s my lot. I’ll be back to assess for the Florida Derby at Gulfstream in a couple of weeks. Until then, stay safe and lucky!”

Umberto will return with his blog in a fortnight, previewing Saturday 27th March’s Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.

Umberto Rispoli is a former two-time Italian champion, who has gone on to ride worldwide winners at the highest level from France to Japan and Hong Kong. Last year he settled into his new California base and he came within one winner of being the leading jockey of the Del Mar summer.

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