OLDSMAR — With Prospective engaged in a stirring stretch duel, trainer Mark Casse didn't have time to blink an eye.
Wearing blinkers for the first time made all the difference to Prospective, who outkicked Golden Ticket to win the Grade II $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby on Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs and earn a potential berth in the May 5 Kentucky Derby.
Ridden by Luis Contreras, Prospective won by three-quarters of a length after Golden Ticket, who made an inside move on the final turn, briefly put a head in front in the lane as a crowd of 9,247 watched.
"I wish (Prospective) would have won by five (lengths)," Casse said. "I was shocked that he made the lead so early. With the blinkers, he was just much more aggressive and does what he has to do. He's a fighter."
Casse made the equipment change to blinkers after Prospective finished second behind Battle Hardened in the Feb. 4 Sam F. Davis. In that race, the 3-year-old Malibu Moon colt drew the outside post, went wide on both turns and lost by only 11/4 lengths.
"In the Sam Davis, he was running the entire way down the backstretch with his head cocked, kind of looking at things," Casse said. "We needed something to maybe give us a length or two and thought this will get him a little closer in the early going."
Prospective made the lead at 6 furlongs after chasing pace-setter Cajun Charlie (finished 10th), who set fractions of 22.69 and 47.08 seconds through the first half-mile.
"I had a lot of horse on the backstretch," said Contreras, who started from the No. 1 post. "He moved a little early, but I tried to save my horse as much as I could for the stretch."
Cozzetti was three lengths farther behind in third. Spring Hill Farm, the 2-1 favorite, was fourth, and Battle Hardened finished sixth.
Spring Hill Farm jockey Javier Castellano, who won the Festival Day's other stakes with Zagora ($3.60) in the Grade III $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes and Wait Til Dawn ($4.40) in the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes, said, "I think my horse didn't like the (track) surface much."
Battle Hardened trainer Eddie Kenneally said: "He had a decent trip. It just wasn't his day."
Prospective ($8.20) clocked 1 1/16th-miles in 1:43.35. The $210,000 paycheck raises his graded-stakes earnings to $365,452, ensuring a place in the Kentucky Derby starting gate for owner John Oxley. It was the fourth win from seven outings for the Kentucky-bred colt, who also has stakes wins in the Grade III Grey at Woodbine in Toronto and the Pasco at the Downs.
Casse said Prospective's next start might be in the Wood Memorial on April 7 at Aqueduct in Jamaica, N.Y.