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A spot in the Kentucky Derby may be at stake Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs

The past nine winners of the Tampa Bay Derby have all had a shot at a run for the roses at Churchill Downs.
Classic Causeway, with Jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., won the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in February and will now to become the first horse in six years to also win the Tampa Bay Derby in the same season.
Classic Causeway, with Jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., won the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in February and will now to become the first horse in six years to also win the Tampa Bay Derby in the same season. [ CARSON DENNIS | ZUMAPRESS.com ]
Published Mar. 11

OLDSMAR — The road to the Kentucky Derby is long and arduous.

It begins, officially, in September and winds across three continents with horses collecting points in designated prep races in the hope of earning one of 20 coveted spots at Churchill Downs in May.

But, truthfully, it begins long before that through the meticulous selection of bloodlines and trainers. Of stables and schedules. Of strategy and good fortune.

And now that long and complicated road will be reduced to 1 1/16 mile of racing on a dirt track in north Pinellas County this weekend.

History says the winner of the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby will all but be guaranteed a spot in the Kentucky Derby based on the points at stake in Saturday’s race at Tampa Bay Downs.

Since the current points system was introduced nine years ago, every Tampa Bay Derby winner has qualified for the Kentucky Derby, although three withdrew due to injuries and other reasons.

The location of the Tampa Bay Derby — both geographically and on the calendar — has made it a popular race for a lot of trainers.

It awards enough points (50-20-10-5) that the top two finishers are in good shape for the Kentucky Derby but it’s early enough in the season that a horse still has time to pick up additional starts if needed. Super Saver, for instance, placed third in the Tampa Bay Derby in 2010 and then finished second in the Arkansas Derby before going on to win the Kentucky Derby a month later.

The race is also perfectly situated for trainers who are ramping up their horses at a particular pace. The Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on April 2 awards more points and a bigger purse, but it might also attract a more challenging field with less time for a rebound before the Kentucky Derby.

All of which has made Oldsmar a desirable winter location for some trainers. Shipsational was relocated here from New York earlier in the season to get acclimated to the track as well as picking up a handful of Kentucky Derby points with a second-place finish in the Sam F. Davis Stakes race at Tampa Bay Downs in February.

Shipsational is now one of the three favorites heading into Saturday’s race along with Classic Causeway and Major General. Classic Causeway is shooting to become the first horse to win both the Sam F. Davis and the Tampa Bay Derby since Destin in 2016. Destin went on to finish sixth in the Kentucky Derby.

Major General, trained by five-time Tampa Bay Derby winner Todd Pletcher at Palm Beach Downs, has not been in a race since October when he won the first race of the Kentucky Derby prep season at Churchill Downs. That means Major General will be making his three-year-old debut on Saturday in a field that includes five other horses on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard.

Post time for Saturday’s first race is 12:15 with three other stakes races prior to the running of the Tampa Bay Derby at approximately 5:23 p.m.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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