Tacitus winning the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) - Photo by SV Photography

Tacitus winning the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) – Photo by SV Photography

Early speed, middle moves, late rallies, a wild finish with a half-dozen horses in the hunt—from start to finish, the $400,000 Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) at Tampa Bay Downs had it all.

Ultimately, it was Bill Mott’s lightly-raced Tacitus who emerged from the fray victorious in the Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race, which was no small feat considering that Tacitus was racing for the first time in four months and making his debut against winners, having broken his maiden in November at Aqueduct by a hard-fought neck.

Racing on Lasix for the first time, Tacitus settled comfortably into mid-pack early on, about ten lengths off a fast early pace set by the sprinter Zenden. The latter was aggressive in securing the lead from post position ten, sprinting hard to the front while posting fractions of :22.79, :45.85, and 1:09.57. Well Defined, the front-running winner of the Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III) at Tampa Bay Downs last month, was relegating to a chasing position in second place, while race favorite Win Win Win raced wide in seventh place.

Zenden led around the far turn and into the homestretch, where he was confronted by Outshine, a Todd Pletcher-trained colt making a move from third place. Win Win Win was likewise gaining ground after making a big mid-race move, but his strides weren’t coming fast enough to catch Outshine.

Then, along the rail, Tacitus suddenly burst through like he had just joined the race. He was moving clearly strongest at the finish, pulling clear of Outshine to win by 1 ¼ lengths in the stakes-record time of 1:41.90 for 1 1/16 miles, bettering the 1:42.36 clocking posted by future Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit in 2017.

“He’s a big horse and when he made the lead, he didn’t keep going; he kind of waited a little bit,” winning jockey Jose Ortiz told Tampa Bay Downs after the race. “He does everything so easy and I don’t know if he’s given me 100 percent yet—I don’t think so.”

Outshine, game to the finish line, held second place by 1 ¼ lengths over Win Win Win, who just got up to edge the gallant but leg-weary Zenden for the third spot.

From a handicapping perspective, it’s not hard to make a case that Tacitus benefited from the fast early pace; Zenden’s held on impressively despite his bold front-running gambit, while Outshine raced much closer to the pace than Tacitus.

Then again, Tacitus overcame a layoff and a sharp jump in class to win going away, and as a son of Tapit out of the champion mare Close Hatches, he’s bred to improve with maturity. It’s possible that we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg in regard to what this Juddmonte Farms homebred can accomplish, and it’s safe to say that he’s joined stablemates Country House and Hidden Scroll as a significant contender for the 2019 Kentucky Derby.