Making the grade: Tampa Bay Derby winner Ring Weekend

Ring Weekend rolls to victory in the Tampa Bay Derby.

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Making the Grade, which will run through the 2014 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners of the big races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the next Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey) and pedigree.

This week we take a closer look at Ring Weekend, winner of the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby on March 8 at Tampa Bay Downs.

Ring Weekend made his stakes debut a memorable one on March 8 at Tampa Bay Downs when he led from start to finish in a three-length victory in the Tampa Bay Derby. The win was worth 50 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard, placing Ring Weekend in a tie for fourth and cementing his spot in the first jewel of the Triple Crown. We’ll take a closer look at the rapid rise of this talented gelding, who went from winless in four starts to a Kentucky Derby contender in a month.

Ability: After Ring Weekend was defeated by four lengths or more in each of his three starts in 2013, the chestnut gelding has shown much more ability as a 3-year-old. Ring Weekend led late before giving was in his season debut on the grass in January at Gulfstream Park. He finished second by a half-length in that 7½-furlong race and earned a career-best 93 Equibase Speed Figure, a 15-point jump from his previous top figure.

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Ring Weekend continued to show improvement in his next start when he opened a clear lead in the stretch and held on to win by a half-length in a 1 1/16-mile dirt race at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 8. He was given a 95 Equibase Speed Figure for his first win and jumped to triple-digits with a 100 for the Tampa Bay Derby win.

In the Tampa Bay Derby, Ring Weekend went right to the front and was all alone setting an uncontested pace. He led comfortably from start to finish and completed 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.71, three-fifths of a second off the stakes record set by eventual Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense in 2007.

“I wouldn’t say my confidence was high, but I really thought he was legit,” said trainer Graham Motion, who added Ring Weekend turned around after being gelded following his third start as a 2-year-old. “I took him to Saratoga to try to break his maiden [last August, that’s how much I liked him.

“I think gelding him got his mind on the game.”

Owners St. Elias Stable and West Points Thoroughbreds purchased Ring Weekend for $310,000 at the 2012 Keeneland September yearling sale, which was above the average price of $263,114 for the 44 Tapit yearlings sold at that sale and well above the overall average price of $87,330 for that auction. 

Running style: Ring Weekend’s front-running win in the Tampa Bay Derby might lead some fans to think he’s a need-the-lead type, but that was the first race in which he set the pace. Only once before, in his final start at two, did he ever even hold a lead before the stretch. It’s possible that perhaps jockey Daniel Centeno and Motion might have discovered the key to success with Ring Weekend in the Tampa Bay Derby, and we’ll see him use the same tactics moving forward. But he has always been ratable and he has shown the ability to rally from off the pace to win as well. Either way, he showed a nice cruising speed in the Tampa Bay Derby and he should be able to use that to get a tactical advantage in races as he progresses on the Kentucky Derby trail.

Connections: Motion won the Kentucky Derby in 2011 with his third starter in the race, Animal Kingdom. Second in the Preakness and sixth in the Belmont Stakes, Animal Kingdom returned from a pair of significant injuries to win the 2013 Dubai World Cup, the richest race in the sport of Thoroughbred racing with a $10 million purse. Based at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland, Motion has won more than 1,800 races. His first Grade 1 winner was Film Maker, who won the 2003 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup Stakes, and his first superstar was five-time Grade 1 winner Better Talk Now, winner of the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Turf.

St. Elias Stable and West Point Thoroughbreds raced Grade 2 winner Freedom Child in partnership. He was unplaced in the 2013 Belmont Stakes. Terry Finley, a West Point graduate who served in the Army for eight years, runs West Point Thoroughbreds, which has consistently competed at the highest level in the sport since 2007. West Point campaigned Grade 1 winners Lear’s Princess, Flashy Bull, Macho Again, Awesome Gem, Irish Smoke and Dream Rush either alone or in partnership. Macho Again finished second in the 2008 Preakness for West Point. Flashy Bull, unplaced in 2006, was West Point’s only Kentucky Derby starter to date.

Centano picked up his second win in the Tampa Bay Derby (Musket Man, 2009) and third graded stakes win overall. He has never had a Kentucky Derby starter. Ring Weekend has had three different riders for his six starts with Alan Garcia aboard three times.

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