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Verrazano faces eight in Tampa Bay Derby

  • Verrazano is an intimidating presence in the Tampa Bay Derby field (EquiSport Photo/Joe Ganley)

Saturday's Grade 2, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby marks the highly-anticipated stakes debut of Verrazano, who will make his first start around two turns for Todd Pletcher following a pair of smashing victories at Gulfstream Park. A leading Kentucky Derby contender, the unbeaten colt will retain the services of John Velazquez and drew post 6 in the nine-horse field.

Verrazano, a likely odds-on favorite, would add 50 points to his ledger by winning Saturday, with the 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby awarding points on a 50-20-10-5 scale in the new "Road to the Kentucky Derby" scoring system.

The son of More Than Ready made his career bow on New Year's Day, capturing a 6 1/2-furlong maiden special weight by 7 3/4 lengths, and Verrazano really turned heads when stretching out to a one-turn mile in a February 2 allowance/optional claiming event, streaking away to a 16 1/4-length decision. The latter performance netted him a 104 BRIS Speed rating, by far the top number earned by any of the Tampa Bay Derby participants, and the bay colt counts last year's Grade 2 Risen Star winner El Padrino as a half-brother.

Verrazano raced up close to the pace in both of his previous starts and could be tracking Falling Sky during the early stages Saturday. That rival exits a wire-to-wire tally in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis at Tampa, holding for a neck decision in his first start against graded stakes rivals, and Falling Sky scratched out of the recent Grade 2 Fountain of Youth in favor of this spot. The probable pacesetter drilled five furlongs in a bullet :59 3/5 at Palm Meadows on Monday for trainer John Terranova and the son of Lion Heart figures to be winging it early with a returning Jose Espinoza up.

Multiple stakes winner Dynamic Sky will receive a rider switch to Joel Rosario following his fast-finishing second in the Sam Davis. A Woodbine stakes winner in his second career start, the Mark Casse-trained colt recorded a runner-up in the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland before shipping to Santa Anita for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile where he wound up a non-threatening sixth in his dirt debut. His sophomore season got off to an encouraging start, with Dynamic Sky rallying to win the seven-furlong Pasco at Tampa, and the son of Sky Mesa will attempt to make a late impact here.

Honorable Dillon invades on the upswing for trainer Eddie Kenneally, recording a nice win in the Grade 2 Hutcheson on February 2, and will look to carry that form forward in his first two-turn attempt. The gray son of Tapit will pick up the services of Corey Lanerie in his second stakes start.

Pletcher will also send the unbeaten Park City postward. A debut winner at Saratoga, the Harlan's Holiday colt wasn't seen again under silks until February 2, returning with a hard-fought neck decision in a 6 1/2-furlong allowance/optional claimer at Gulfstream. The late runner will receive a rider switch to Edgar Prado.

The Tampa Bay Derby marks the return to action for the unbeaten Purple Egg, who has been sidelined since a nice win in the six-furlong Inaugural at Tampa on December 1. Stakes victor Java's War, who was last seen finishing sixth in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs in late November, is also slated to make his first appearance at three.

The remaining contestants are Eton Blue, who finished second to Verrazano last time, and recent Gulfstream allowance/optional claiming runner-up Offlee Fast.

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