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Submitted by Noel Michaels on Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM

Tampa Bay Derby brings Verrazano a new set of challenges

You can hear the excitement in trainer Todd Pletcher’s voice just talking about Verrazano, his undefeated and still untested Kentucky Derby prospect, who’ll take center stage when making his stakes debut Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs in the $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby.

Despite the imposing presence of Verrazano, who’s favored in this week’s Daily Racing Form Derby Watch, the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby drew a field of nine that also includes Verrazano’s undefeated stablemate Park City.

Other key contenders include Honorable Dillon, winner of Gulfstream Park’s Grade 2 Hutcheson; Falling Sky and Dynamic Sky, the first- and second-place finishers in Tampa’s Grade 3 Sam F. Davis; and the undefeated Purple Egg.Eton Blue, Java’s War, and Offlee Fast complete the field.

The 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby offers 85 qualifying points, including 50 to the winner, in the new system devised to determine eligibility for this year’s Kentucky Derby if the race overfills.

Verrazano has won both his starts, both at Gulfstream, by a combined margin of 23 1/2 lengths, including an entry-level optional-claiming race going a mile by 16 1/4 lengths for which he received a 105 Beyer Speed Figure on Feb. 2. As was the case in his first two outings, John Velazquez will again have the mount in the Tampa Derby.

“Any time you run a horse like this, you can’t help but be excited,” Pletcher said Thursday. “From an ability and natural talent standpoint, he stacks up as good as any 3-year-old we’ve had at this point in his career. And from what we’ve seen in his races and during training, he’s already done some things that have been very special.”

But Pletcher knows the Tampa Derby will provide his star with a much sterner test than he’s had in his first two starts.

“He’s only run in a maiden race and a one-other-than, and like everyone else we’re anxious to see if he can handle the step up in distance, in class, and the new surface,” Pletcher said. “But I’m very optimistic he’ll be able to duplicate what he’s been able to do at Gulfstream and what he’s shown us in the morning on Saturday at Tampa.”

Pletcher said he expects to see Verrazano forwardly placed in his two-turn debut, as he’s been in his first two starts.

“It looks like there’s some possible speed both inside and outside us, but he’s been on top of 45-and-change half-mile splits in each of his first two starts, so I don’t see him too far out of it,” Pletcher said.

Pletcher said he has nothing definite mapped out for Verrazano’s final derby prep, assuming all goes well Saturday.

“We’d love to win the race and have the 50 points, because I feel like it would put us in a good position,” Pletcher said. “And by running at Tampa, it gives us a lot of different options coming out of this race, including the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial.”

Honorable Dillon also will be stretching out around two turns for the first time Saturday. A Tapit colt, he rallied to defeat the Pletcher-trained Forty Tales by a half-length in the seven-furlong Hutcheson at Gulfstream.

“His pedigree says he shouldn’t have a problem staying the distance,” said Eddie Kenneally, who trains Honorable Dillon for owner Joe Bucci. “Obviously, the competition will be tough, especially with Verrazano in the field, but the main thing is this race gives our horse the opportunity to run a route of ground.”

Falling Sky was entered but scratched out of Gulfstream’s Grade 2 Fountain of Youth last month after drawing an outside post. And he’s suffered the same fate Saturday, having drawn the outside.

Falling Sky led throughout then dug in gamely to withstand Dynamic Sky by a neck to capture the 1 1/16-mile Sam Davis in his first start since being purchased at the OBS winter mixed sale and transferred to trainer John Terranova’s barn in January. The win was the third in four starts for Falling Sky, who’ll carry high weight of 122 pounds with Java’s War under the allowance conditions of the race.

“The post position is out of our hands – there’s not much we can do about it,” Terranova said. “Hopefully, he’ll break well and put himself in a good position without losing much ground in that first turn. We’ve got him really, really ready. His last work was fantastic, and I’m very happy to have had a two-turn race over that track. To me, that’s a huge key. At this point, the stakes keep getting higher, and you just have to keep passing these kinds of tests.”

Dynamic Sky has run the two best races of his career at Tampa. He also won the seven-furlong Pasco in his 3-year-old debut, and both that race and the Sam Davis came with the addition of blinkers. Trainer Mark Casse has named Joel Rosario to replace regular rider Luis Contreras aboard Dynamic Sky for the Tampa Derby.

Purple Egg has won all three of his starts, but missed time and several potential races after taking ill earlier this winter. He has not raced since winning the Inaugural on opening day at Tampa on Dec. 1.

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