OLDSMAR — No one wanted to set the pace, so Ring Weekend did.
It was smooth sailing after that as Ring Weekend, a 14-1 shot, won the Grade II $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby with ease Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs before an announced crowd of 10,359.
Ring Weekend, a 3-year-old son of Tapit who was gelded five months ago, opened a huge early lead and cruised to a three-length victory that virtually locks up a starting berth in the Kentucky Derby on May 3 at Churchill Downs at Louisville, Ky.
He earned 50 points in the Kentucky Derby qualifying system, tied for third with California Chrome and Wildcat Red. Vinceremos, the Sam F. Davis winner, finished second and earned 20 points. Surfing U S A and 5-2 favorite Conquest Titan were next, earning 10 and five points, respectively.
Owned by St. Elias Stable and West Point Thoroughbreds, Ring Weekend was expected to start Saturday in the $100,000 Private Terms Stakes at Laurel (Park) in Maryland. But West Point founder and president Terry Finley changed plans in midweek.
"Terry called an audible and thought (the Tampa Bay Derby) was an open race," said trainer Graham Motion, who saddled 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom. "It was a great decision."
Motion said his instructions to jockey Daniel Centeno were to "make sure you break and put him where he's comfortable (not on the lead)."
Centeno made an early adjustment in the race. "The plan was to get close and try to stay behind the speed, but nobody wanted to go," he said. "He took the lead easy and started galloping. … He got mad when I tried to take a hold of him. When I looked (behind) on the backside, I said, 'Oh, my God.' I opened up by 20 (lengths)."
Ring Weekend, a $310,000 purchase in September 2012 at the Keeneland yearling sale in Lexington, Ky., set fractions of 23.62 and 46.68 seconds. After 6 furlongs, his lead was five lengths. Ring Weekend's time of 1:43.71 for 1 1/16 miles was close to the stakes record of 1:43.11 by 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense.
Ring Weekend paid $30 to win and raised his career earnings to $255,660 with the $210,000 paycheck. In five previous starts, he had only a maiden special weight win in a Feb. 8 start at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach.
"The 1-hole (Ring Weekend's post) was good (Saturday) and enabled him to do whatever he wanted," Motion said. "(Ring Weekend) is a horse who really gets brave when things go his way."
Said Ginny DePasquale, assistant trainer for Vinceremos conditioner Todd Pletcher: "We didn't want (Vinceremos) to go to the front and engage (Ring Weekend). He got loose on the lead, got brave and just kept going."
Testa Rossi ($4) won the Grade III $200,000 Florida Oaks, and Cloud Scapes ($9.60) took the Grade III $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes.
All-source handle on the 12-race card was $10,249,574.