OLDSMAR — The reaction was loud, crazy and unmistakable.
It was the sound of a group of thoroughbred owners who won a race so shockingly and so convincingly when maybe they didn’t even think they should have won at all.
And this one was for the Tampa Bay Derby, a victory that virtually guarantees a trip to the Kentucky Derby.
Ring Weekend, a 14-1 long shot that broke its maiden a month ago at Gulfstream Park, galloped to a five-length lead entering the final turn and had enough to finish, winning Tampa Bay Downs’ biggest race by three lengths in 1:43.71 in a wire-to-wire upset in front of an announced crowd of 10,359.
Quiet even when the gelding built a massive lead, the yelling and screaming began when West Point Thoroughbreds owner Terry Finley and friends watched Ring Weekend approach the wire with no threat of losing. Then the men in suits started jumping up and down, right into the adjacent winner’s circle.
Even the mild-mannered trainer of Ring Weekend, Graham Motion, was taken aback.
“I was surprised how easily he did it,” said Motion, the Maryland-based conditioner who won the Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom in 2011. “(Before the race) I wouldn’t say my confidence was high, but I really thought he was legit.”
Motion was all set to take Ring Weekend to Maryland’s Laurel Park to prep when Finley brought up the possibility of Tampa Bay, where no real strong favorite figured to be in the field. Both agreed it was a good spot to try to accumulate Kentucky Derby qualifying points. They got 50 for the win, in addition to $210,000.
It is the second Tampa Bay Derby win for Motion and for TBD leading jockey Daniel Centeno, one of the few local connections to be a part of the race. All 10 entries and eight of the 10 jockeys come to town just for this card.
“When I got to the first turn it was like he got mad at me for not letting him run,” Centeno said. “I knew I was clear of the field and I didn’t want to get run down and I was able to get him to relax and save something for the stretch. He was looking around getting into the stretch and I was getting concerned, but when he switched leads he just took off again.”
Motion was unsure about Ring Weekend’s next race, but he plans to run him again before the Kentucky Derby.
Vinceremos, last month’s Sam F. Davis Stakes winner, was second and earned 20 points, while Surfing U S A was third and earned 10 points. Both are trained by Todd Pletcher and remain in contention for the May 3 Kentucky Derby. Each likely will need another high finish in a prep race to qualify. Conquest Titan, the favorite at slightly over 5-2 odds, was fourth and earned five points.
The Tampa Bay Derby was one of three graded stakes on the Festival Day card. The Grade III $200,000 Florida Oaks was won by another Triple Crown nominee, the French-bred filly Testa Rossi, trained by Chad Brown and ridden by Jose Lezcano.
Testa Rossi, at even money, closed in dominant fashion, coming from fifth place to win by 3½ lengths.
Brown said Testa Rossi is “very unlikely” to pursue the Triple Crown trail, but will head to Keeneland in Kentucky to prepare for the Ashland Stakes. Though Brown did not mention the Kentucky Oaks, that seems to be a logical target for the filly, which has won five of its past six starts, including two graded-stakes wins.
The Grade III $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes went to another Motion trainee, Cloud Scapes, the 7-2 third betting choice. That gave Cloud Scapes a sweep of Tampa’s older filly graded turf stakes after winning January’s Endeavour Stakes.
After his huge day, it was hard for Motion, as well as his owners, to not think about what lies ahead.
“It’s March in (Ring Weekend’s) 3-year-old year,” Motion said. “Exciting, isn’t it?”