The expectations were affixed to Conquest Titan before the substance. He had that $475,000 price tag from the 2013 OBS March 2-year-old sale, after all, inspired by a pedigree and stride that had trainer Mark Casse thinking May in capital letters.
"To this day, (co-owner) Ernie (Semersky) will show you the text I sent him when the horse worked past me," Casse said. "I texted Ernie, 'I've seen a star.'"
Casse is a learned enough horseman to still demand his charges to show him a thing or two before he wholeheartedly signs off on the horn-blowing. Pending results of Saturday's Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby, Conquest Titan just about has his conditioner convinced.
Six starts into his career, Conquest Titan is starting to amass some concrete foundation to support the notion of him being a Kentucky Derby starter. Deemed the 7-2 second choice on the morning line for the 11⁄16-mile Tampa Bay Derby, the son of Birdstone has put together back-to-back races that continue to flatter him after the fact.
Aiming to rebound off a 13th-place run in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last November in which Conquest Titan raced too close to the pace, Casse wheeled the colt back in an allowance race at Churchill Downs 28 days later where he made a last-to-first charge for his second career win.
Though Cairo Prince would run off with the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 25, the fact Conquest Titan closed over a speed-favoring Gulfstream Park track to get second reaffirmed to Casse he belonged in the upper percentile of the sophomore class.
What Casse most enjoys is answering the question of whom Conquest Titan has beaten. General a Rod, second to him at Churchill in November, has come back to win the Gulfstream Park Derby and was a head away from taking the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes. And Intense Holiday, who was a half-length behind Conquest Titan in the Holy Bull? His most recent outing was a victory in the Grade II Risen Star Stakes.
"When he won that allowance race at Churchill, I wasn't sure what he'd beat and then General a Rod came back and ran so well," said Casse, who will also saddle stakes-winner Matador in the Tampa Bay Derby. "I read in a few places, 'Well, somebody had to be second in the Holy Bull.' So Intense Holiday coming back and winning the Risen Star ... I believe you're judged by the company you keep and we seem to be keeping some pretty good company."
Where some horses who like to come from well back have a grind-it-out style to their running, Casse says he sees a more explosive turn of foot from Conquest Titan.
Forecasting what might transpire if the dark bay colt finds himself behind a wall of horses on the first Saturday in May, Casse thinks such an instantaneous kick is what could give him the edge over others who might be making their surge at the same time.
"If you watch him even in the Holy Bull, he runs by horses — and they're not just horses; they're good horses — with such quickness it's amazing," Casse said. "Of course, when you can do that, it's important — especially in big fields like the Kentucky Derby.
"One of the ways to be able to get through traffic is when you can push the gas and get a quick response, it allows the rider a little more confidence and a little better trip a lot of times."
Among the nine rivals Conquest Titan will need to run by on Saturday are Todd Pletcher trainees Surfing U S A, the 3-1 morning-line favorite, and Vinceremos. Vinceremos already owns a win over the tricky Tampa Bay Downs surface having taken the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 1 in just his third career start.
"He's really been very green in all three of his starts and we're hoping that he continues to improve," said Elliott Walden, president of WinStar Farm which co-owns Vinceremos. "What I like about him is the fact that he gets headed and he competes."
Though horses either love or hate Tampa Bay's main track, Casse feels this spot will give Conquest Titan a better chance than he would have faced had he gone in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and dealt with the perceived speed-bias that day.
"You know, you sit there and you watch race after race after race run at Gulfstream and there's definitely a big bias there," Casse said. "Normally a horse that sits close or midpack, it's one thing, but this horse comes from so far out that he's at just a great disadvantage and I didn't think it was fair to him to make him run against that again."
Bold Holder sent to clinic; Bayern out of San Felipe
Grade I winner Bond Holder has been moved to an equine clinic in Ocala, Fla., to deal with a foot problem, trainer Doug O'Neill announced on HRTV and via Twitter on Thursday.
Bond Holder was scratched out of the Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 22 because of the effects of a rough flight to New Orleans and was also previously declared out of Saturday's Tampa Bay Derby.
Trouble also reared up for Bob Baffert-trainee Bayern on Thursday. Baffert confirmed on Twitter that the unbeaten son of Offlee Wild would scratch out of Saturday's Grade II San Felipe Stakes, where he was the morning-line favorite, because of a bruised inside quarter.
Baffert informed Simon Bray from TVG that the colt could train up to either the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 5 or the Arkansas Derby on April 12.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.