The Brock Talk

Friday, April 1, 2011

Deep Florida Derby Has Trainers In The Know

There is no question the Florida Derby (gr. 1) Sunday at Gulfstream Park is the deepest prep race for the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands so far this year. And Sandra Bullock is more popular than Jesse James. The race has two horses that are ranked in the top five of most Derby watch lists this Spring, two other top ten candidates and four new comers to the Triple Crown trail including a monkey wrench. The eventual winner is the mystery.

The favorite is Soldat, a good looking son of War Front who won the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. 2) at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 26. Although War Front was a sprinter and Soldat’s grandsire, Rubiano, was a champion sprinter, Soldat has had little trouble winning his two previous starts this year, both at the Florida Derby distance of 1-1/8 miles. Befor the Fountain of Youth, Soldat also won a 9 furlong allowance race in February by more than 10-1/2 lengths.

Soldat has used his speedy genetics to win both races from gate to wire, making one think jockey Alan Garcia might employ the same tactics in the Florida Derby. However, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin (photo right) calls the game plan and it is doubtful he wants Soldat to race to the front Sunday. “He does everything right,” McLaughlin said on Televison Games Network. “The only thing I’d like to change is for him to get some dirt in his face. Whether it be in the Florida Derby or in the morning, we might do both. But on the first Saturday in May, you don’t want to be on the lead.”

Soldat has already fulfilled his morning “dirt in the face” requirement, beginning his Mar. 20 five furlong work behind two runners from the McLaughlin stable before accelerating around them to complete the assigned task. The grimy trip didn’t seem to bother Soldat much as he recorded a bullet work in 1:00 3/5, the fastest of 29 five-eighths of a mile works at Palm Meadows that morning. Odds are that McLaughlin wants to fulfill the other “dirt in the face” requirement Sunday.

Regardless of McLaughlin’s strategy, trainer Rick Dutrow looks to have his sights on the early lead in the Florida Derby with his late entrant Flashpoint. Like Soldat, Flashpoint is by a young sire who was successful on the track as a sprinter. His sire Pomeroy won the King’s Bishop and Kelso Handicap, both grade 1 races at seven furlongs in New York. Unlike Soldat, however, Flashpoint has never been further than the seven furlong Hutcheson Stakes, a grade 2 race on Feb. 26 he won by seven and a half lengths.

Flashpoint breaks from the outside post in the eight-horse field, but he figures to the first leader in the Florida Derby and perhaps putting McLaughlin at some ease for the moment. Should Soldat also want the lead as his past performances may indicate, that would be the wrench du monkey previously mentioned.

A trainer that will be rooting for Soldat and Flashpoint to battle each early, is two-time Kentucky Derby winning condition Nick Zito, who saddles 2-1 second choice Dialed In. Considered among the future book favorites to win in Kentucky, the son of 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft is a classic late closer. He broke his maiden at Churchill Downs coming from last in a 12-horse field and then won the one mile Holy Bull Stakes (gr. 3) Jan. 30 at Gulfstream Park coming from last, ten lengths off the lead.

Scheduling challenges and a need to expand out to nine furlongs, forced Zito to run Dialed In against older horses in a Mar. 6 optional claiming. A slow pace in that race also presented a challenge for the young closer and jockey Julien Laparoux, but they rallied to finish second to remain on the Kentucky Derby trail.

Having some difficulty staying on the Derby track is To Honor and Serve who finished a tired looking third behind Soldat In the Fountain of Youth. Coming from the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott (photo left) somewhat eases those concerns for To Honor and Serve fans, but that does not reduce the necessity of a much improved performance in the Florida Derby in order to stay the Kentucky course.

If the Derby path had somehow narrowed to a straight line down the stretch of Aqueduct’s inner track on March 5, it is uncertain if Stay Thirsty would still be aboard. But the Derby path didn’t constrict and Stay Thirsty remains pointed toward Kentucky.

Although Stay Thirsty won the grade 3 Gotham Stakes that day, he looked less than professional in doing so. That day he broke poorly but jockey Ramon Dominguez was able to eventuall place him into contention. Turning for home, Stay Thirsty veered in without impeding another horse before then changing leads a few times. But his talent endurred and Stay Thirsty drew off to win the Gotham by just over three lengths.

It was the first start of the year for Stay Thirsty, so trainer Todd Pletcher looked at the Gotham with a glass half full attitude - seeing the room for improvement in his young son of Bernadini. He will put blinkers on Stay Thirsty in the Florida Derby to help him focus and seems confident he’ll see a smarter Stay Thirsty this time.

Rounding out the Florida Derby are Arch Traveler, Bowman’s Causeway and Shackleford, all at 20-1 and none of which are stakes winners.

There have been eleven Kentucky Derby winners who ran in the Florida Derby without winning. The most recent of those was Monarchos who took the 2001 Run for the Roses after finishing second in Florida. Before that, both Thunder Gulch (1995) and Go For Gin (’94) won Kentucky Derbies after finishing fourth in their respective Florida Derbies.

Pletcher, McLaughlin, Mott, Pletcher and Zito probably know of a few of those horses. Zito does. He trained Go For Gin. The four trainers also know their horses likely have enough graded earnings to qualify for the big prize at Churchill. And despite the $1 million purse in Florida, the riches and prestige of the Kentucky have no rival in North American horse racing – perhaps even the world.

So a loss Sunday does not present any type of third strike or punch off the proverbial trail to the Kentucky Derby. But the talent in this field in abundant and wide spread – even hidden, perhaps, in one of the three long shots. The light prep races disappeared with the days of February and March and time is eroding the options for change as the first Saturday in May nears.

Still the Florida Derby is not life or death. But a bad race by any of the promising contenders will surely cause less than comfortable illness for the previously hopeful connections. You can bet the four trainers know that too.


Anonymous said...

It's exciting to see a field like the Florida Derby, I think all us fans dream of fields like this.
Dialed In and Soldat look the best and I think Dialed in has the upper hand with the addition of Flashpoint who should ensure a solid pace.
I really like Stay Thirsty but I think he might be a little short for this bunch with just one race this year under his belt.
To Honor and Serve is training like a monster, I'm really curious to see what he does.

Great recap, it's a really tough race to handicap!


Unknown said...

Tough to find a winner in this field without using a little intuition. The more I see those War Front get run, the more I think I like him, hence Soldat. I'm also looking for a big race out of To Honor and Serve. I'd probably bet To Honor and Serve as a key horse with Soldat, longshot Bowman's Causeway (only because I'm a fan of the sire and the price), and some others well placed in an exotic or two.