St. Elias Stable and West Point Thoroughbreds' Ring Weekend grabbed the early lead and never looked back in Saturday's Grade 2, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby, springing the 14-1 upset in his first start outside of maiden company. Trained by Graham Motion and ridden by local ace Daniel Centeno, the Tapit gelding paid $30 to win and earned 50 points toward the Kentucky Derby.
Ring Weekend was overlooked in the wagering after taking five starts to break his maiden, checking that box last time out at Gulfstream Park. His better-fancied rivals included 5-2 favorite Conquest Titan, most recently runner-up to Cairo Prince in the Holy Bull; Vinceremos, winner of the February 1 Sam F. Davis over the track; and Surfing U S A, who was second to the now-sidelined Top Billing in a Gulfstream allowance in his latest. But none of them could keep up with the unheralded winner.
Breaking from the rail, Ring Weekend flashed early speed, with Surfing U S A and 68-1 longest shot on the board Tuscan Getaway accompanying him passing the stands for the first time. Ring Weekend was a half-length on top through an opening quarter in :23 3/5 on the fast Tampa Bay Downs track.
By the time the field rounded the clubhouse turn into the backstretch, however, Ring Weekend began to get away. He opened up a 3 1/2-length-advantage through a half-mile in :46 3/5, and extended that to five lengths at the six-furlong mark in 1:11 2/5.
Although the tearaway leader appeared to lose a bit of steam turning into the stretch, his pursuers weren't making much of an impact. Ring Weekend, on the other hand, then kept on relentlessly and crossed the wire with three lengths to spare. His final time of 1:43 3/5 for 1 1/16 miles wasn't far off Street Sense's track record of 1:43, established in the 2007 Tampa Bay Derby.
"Coming out of the inside post I had to get him to start well," Centeno said, "but when I got to the first turn it was like he got mad at me for not letting him run. He wasn't rank, he was just full of himself and I had to give him his head. I knew I was clear of the field and I didn't want to get run down and I was able to get him to relax and save something for the stretch.
"He was looking around getting into the stretch and I was getting concerned, but when he switched leads he just took off again."
"I just left the ride to Daniel," Motion said. "I knew he could take advantage of the post position because the inside was good today and told him to just make sure he broke well and to put him where he was comfortable.
"I think the others kind of left him alone because they possibly didn't consider him a legit horse and he got away with it. When the jockey looks behind him that much, you feel like he has a lot left. I could never have anticipated him winning like that."
Vinceremos bested Surfing U S A, his stablemate from the Todd Pletcher barn, by three-quarters of a length for second. Conquest Titan reported home another length astern in fourth, one spot ahead of fellow Mark Casse trainee Matador. Cousin Stephen, Hy Kodiak Warrior, East Hall, Coltimus Prime and the tailed-off Tuscan Getaway rounded out the order of finish.
With this victorious stakes debut, Ring Weekend boosted his earnings to $255,660 from his 6-2-1-2 line. The chestnut tried to start his career on turf, only to have his first two outings transferred onto the main track. A well-beaten fifth in the Saratoga slop on August 31, he was a better third on the stretch-out to two turns at Churchill Downs September 21. Ring Weekend ended his freshman season with another third on Keeneland's Polytrack on October 20, and was subsequently gelded.
"I took him to Saratoga to try to break his maiden, that's how much I liked him," Motion said. "I think gelding him got his mind on the game."
Ring Weekend reappeared in a turf maiden at Gulfstream on January 18, finishing a close second to up-and-comer Divine Oath. Back on the dirt for a 1 1/16-mile maiden on February 8, he overcame post 10 to defeat Legend by a half-length.
Entered on a main-track-only basis for last Saturday's Palm Beach, which offered no Kentucky Derby points, Ring Weekend stayed in the barn when that race stayed on the grass. Connections announced Monday that he would be rerouted to Tampa, and the move paid dividends.
Terry Finley, president of West Point Thoroughbreds, said that Ring Weekend almost went to Laurel for the Private Terms on Saturday instead.
"We were all set to go to Laurel, but Graham called me Monday -- we have the kind of relationship where we both kind of test each other out -- to see if either of us was strong either way," Finley said. "Then we got word Kiaran (McLaughlin's) horse, Baratti, was running at Laurel, and on paper he has run faster than all these, so we decided to enter here. Funny how those things work out."
"I wouldn't say my confidence was high, but I really thought he was legit," Motion said.
"Really, I haven't looked past today for him," the trainer added regarding future targets.
Ring Weekend was bred by Gainesway Thoroughbreds in Kentucky and sold for $310,000 as a yearling at Keeneland September. He is a half-brother to the stakes-placed Bamboo, and his dam, the multiple stakes-placed Free the Magic, is a full sister to Grade 3-placed stakes victor Flash of Joy.
Free the Magic is a daughter of Cryptoclearance and the French classic-placed Pompoes, who is also responsible for Group 2 hero Forest Wind and multiple stakes scorer and Group 3-placed Three Generations. Pompoes is the ancestress of multiple Argentinean Group 1 queen Cayaya and her multiple Group 2-winning compatriot AP Candy.
Ring Weekend's pedigree features 4x3 inbreeding to Fappiano.