The $1.6-Million Man

All Kentucky Derby discussions this year should start with the following two words: Carpe Diem. That’s not to say the top horse in Todd Pletcher’s barn is a lock to win the Kentucky Derby in May. However, he did make the loudest entrance and is living up to expectations.

Purchased for a whopping $1.6 million, Carpe Diem now owns victories at three different tracks in just four races. And we’ve seen him employ three different running styles with great success. He led from gate to wire in his sprint debut at Saratoga, pressed the early pace at Keeneland in his first try around 2 turns, and closed from the clouds to finish 2nd in the BC Juvenile at Santa Anita.

It was back to pressing the pace in his 3-year-old debut at Tampa Bay Downs on March 7. Carpe Diem sat patiently behind dueling leaders and then showed his heels to the few rivals remaining within site of him in deep stretch.

Pletcher’s decision to ship him to Tampa for his return also should be seen as a positive. That choice of comeback venues mirrors the strategy Pletcher used to bring Super Saver up to Derby-winning condition in 2010.

Just as in football, down and distance tell us a lot about the chances of eventually crossing the goal line. Pletcher pointed Daredevil, another one of his top Derby prospects, to the 7-furlong Swale at Gulfstream. That’s a clear signal that he didn’t consider Daredevil fit enough to handle two turns or the sandier Tampa surface. As it turned out, Daredevil also wasn’t quite ready to handle a Gulfstream sprint.

By sending Carpe Diem to run in the Tampa Bay Derby, with an easy 4-furlong breeze just prior, Pletcher told us two things:

  • This horse is fit enough to handle stakes horses around 2 turns.
  • He wanted the horse to get a lot out of his comeback race.

Jockey Johnny Velazquez kept Carpe Diem glued to a blistering pace of 1:11.1, which was the fastest 2-turn pace of the three stakes races run that day. Johnny V worked hard to elicit a big stretch run out of his horse after that demanding early effort. Even though the final time rang up slower than the time in the Tampa Bay Oaks a few races earlier, Carpe Diem definitely got a lot out of the race.

We can nitpick minor flaws, like his slow final quarter and final time in the Tampa Bay Derby. And maybe his constantly shifting running style reflects immaturity or handling issues. But the $1.6-million man now owns a nearly perfect record of 3 wins and 1 second-place finish, along with one of the biggest bankrolls among the Derby-wannabes.

After witnessing this horse’s successful and enormously useful 3-year-old debut, maybe it’s not too early for handicappers to say, “Carpe the first Saturday in May!”

Roger LeBlanc

Tampa Bay Derby Winners:
Race Pace and Winning Time

2015 Carpe Diem ………1:11.1 (1:43.3)
2014 Ring Weekend…..1:11.2 (1:43.3)
2010 Super Saver………1:11.3 (1:44.2)
2012 Prospective ………1:11.3 (1:43.1)
2009 Musket Man …….1:12.2 (1:43.3)
2013 Verrazano…………1:12.1 (1:43.4)
2011 Watch Me Go…….1:12.3 (1:44.1)