The 1 1⁄16-mile Tampa Bay Derby (G2) at Tampa Bay Downs has long existed in the shadow of richer Kentucky Derby prep races at nearby Gulfstream Park. But despite facing fierce competition to attract the best 3-year-olds in Florida, the Tampa Bay Derby has more than held its own as a productive prep for the first Saturday in May.
First held in 1981, the Tampa Bay Derby got off to a quick start when 1982 winner Reinvested went on to finish third in the Kentucky Derby, but the race really took off around the turn of the century. Tampa Bay Derby runners-up Menifee (1999) and Impeachment (2000) went on to hit the board in the Kentucky Derby, prompting the race to receive Grade 3 status in 2002.
This upgrade, coupled with steady purse increases, compelled better and better horses to target the Tampa Bay Derby. 2006 runner-up Bluegrass Cat gave the race a boost when finishing second in the Kentucky Derby, and Street Sense went one better in 2007, parlaying a narrow defeat at Tampa Bay Downs into a runaway victory on the first Saturday in May.
Trainer Todd Pletcher has been the most successful conditioner of Tampa Bay Derby champions, winning with Limehouse in 2004 before saddling four winners during a five-year span from 2013 to 2017. Pletcher also saddled 2010 third-place finisher Super Saver, who went on to claim the 2010 Kentucky Derby.
The Tampa Bay Derby continued to grow during the 2010s, reaching Grade 2 status in 2011 while riding the wave generated by Street Sense and Super Saver. The purse reached $400,000 in 2018, one year after Pletcher’s Tapwrit used a Tampa Bay Derby victory as a springboard to success in the Belmont Stakes (G1). In 2019, Tacitus won the Tampa Bay Derby in the stakes-record time of 1:41.90, the start of a productive season that saw him place in both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.
As part of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, the Tampa Bay Derby offers 85 Derby qualification points to the top four finishers, divided on a 50-20-10-5 basis.
By J. Keeler Johnson