Candy Man Rocket‘s task in Saturday’s $400,000 Tampa Bay Derby (G2) is nearly identical to that which he completed in last month’s Sam F. Davis (G3) — be the fastest of a dozen three-year-olds over 1 1/16 miles of the Tampa Bay Downs strip.
The Bill Mott trainee is the likely favorite but hardly a stickout in a race that has yielded some surprise results in recent years. However, the winning experience over the sometimes tricky track gives the son of Candy Ride an early edge.
“Any time you get a horse that runs well over that racetrack, you have to give it consideration,” Mott said of returning to Tampa Bay Downs. “He’s got good natural speed away from the gate, which can always be an advantage for any horse, position-wise. The chances of getting a good trip might be better than they would for a deep closer, especially in a big field.”
Although Sam Davis runner-up Nova Rags, also from the Mott barn, is heading elsewhere for his next Kentucky Derby (G1) prep, Sam Davis third-place finisher Hidden Stash returns in an attempt to close the 1 1/4-length gap between himself and Candy Man Rocket. Boca Boy, who set the pace in the Sam Davis before weakening to fourth, is also back for the rematch.
Trainer Mark Casse has entered Helium, a top two-year-old in Canada last year when he won both starts over Woodbine’s Tapeta main track, including the Display S. over seven furlongs. The colt is by Ironicus, a notable turf miler during his racing career.
Todd Pletcher has entered two last-out maiden winners. Promise Keeper rebounded from a distant fourth-place effort to Candy Man Rocket in his debut to graduate by five lengths in the slop. Unbridled Honor, meanwhile, improved significantly to win a local maiden by a half-length after going unplaced twice in New York.
Saffie Joseph will be represented by two runners, one of which is a bit of a mystery invader from Puerto Rico. Super Strong made just one start on the island territory, but it was a winning effort in a seven-furlong stakes rated as Grade 1 event on the local circuit.
Looking to rebound off dull performances in the Holy Bull (G3) are Sittin On Go, unplaced three times since taking the Iroquois (G3) in September, and the multiple stakes-placed Awesome Gerry.
Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifying points of 50-20-10-5 are up for grabs to those who finish in top four slots in the Tampa Bay Derby.