A New York bred won the $1 million Florida Derby (gr. I) at Gulfstream Park Saturday, but it wasn't Read the Footnotes. As the even-money favorite faded out of the money, 37-1 Friends Lake stormed from well off the pace to defeat a game Value Plus.
Friends Lake's win payoff of $76.80 was the third highest in the 53 runnings of the Florida Derby. The winning time for the 1 1/8-mile fixture, the first grade I race of the year for 3-year-olds, was a slow 1:51 1/5.
Richard Migliore rode the well-bred chestnut, a colt by A.P. Indy
-Antespend (by Spend a Buck), for trainer John Kimmel and owner/breeders Mary and Chester Broman. Friends Lake won his first graded stakes race.
Kimmel said Friends Lake might not race again before the May 1 Kentucky Derby (gr. I).
After a disappointing third-place finish in the Holy Bull (gr. III) at Gulfstream Jan. 17, when he was beaten by nearly 13 lengths by Second of June, bettors chose to ignore him. Friends Lake became the first New York bred to win the Florida Derby.
Friends Lake had trouble in the saddling paddock prior to the Holy Bull, and was reluctant to load into the gate Saturday.
"In the Holy Bull he was out of control," Kimmel said. "He ran people over in the paddock. So we worked with him many times in the paddock. We brought him here two weeks ago during the concert, then he came back on Sunday when the Beach Boys were playing. He acted improved. We brought him back on Monday and he was like a dog on a leash. A horse that is anxious doesn't perform his 'A' race and he was perfect today.
"It's so tough to keep coming back and holding good form. If he can run a race like this off an eight week layoff we might think about not running him again until the Kentucky Derby."
Kimmel was concerned that Friends Lake didn't want to load.
"I thought the gate attendant was being a little rough on him," he said. "It was distressful."
Reserved early along the inside as Frisky Spider jumped to a big early advantage through opening fractions of :23 2/5 and :47, Friends Lake angled four wide on the far turn while mid-pack, then rallied powerfully in the middle of the track to win by three-quarters of a length. Value Plus was second, three quarters of a length in front of The Cliff's Edge, who came on late for third. Read the Footnotes, who was coming off a neck victory in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II) Feb. 14, nosed out Farnum Alley for fourth, four lengths behind the winner.
"I was pretty confident from about the half-mile when he started pulling me," Migliore said. "About the three-sixteenths pole I opted to ease him out to the middle of the track to get clear. He's got that great, big A.P. Indy stride and he picked it up from there. He was very difficult last time, and he's come a long way."
Value Plus, ridden by John Velazquez, was a little slow to get into stride as Frisky Spider on his outside hustled to the front, and found himself four wide on the first turn. As the field settled in down the backstretch, Value Plus moved into second, making his move three wide heading into the far turn as Read the Footnotes rallied along the rail. Value Plus kept 'Footnotes pinned on the inside coming into the stretch and edged clear as the favorite shortened stride in the final sixteenth of a mile under Jerry Bailey. But Friends Lake rocketed through deep stretch to overtake Value Plus in the final 70 yards.
"He just got a little tired at the eighth pole," said Todd Pletcher, trainer of Value Plus. "That's probably because I only had one seven-eighths race into him and two five-eighths breezes since then. I had hoped we could win it today, but I think we established ourselves."
"I have to think his race in the Fountain of Youth did him in today," said Rick Violette, who trains Read the Footnotes. "As much as we tried to overcome it, it obviously didn't work. At the eighth pole it sort of hit him in the face."
Violette said he hopes to make the Wood Memorial with Read the Footnotes.
The Cliff's Edge, ridden by Shane Sellers, was fractious in the gate and forced to steady into the first turn. After saving ground to move into contention on the final turn, he bumped with Tapit at the top of the stretch but recovered to finish up well.
"It's a little bittersweet because I really think we could have won, trainer Nick Zito said. "This horse just always runs a good race. He's a legit horse. He runs all day. He will run a mile and a quarter. He just needs a break. Maybe down the road we'll get that break."
Tapit finished sixth as the fourth choice in the field of 10, followed by Smoocher, Sir Oscar, Frisky Spider and Notorious Rogue.
It was the third win in five career starts for Friends Lake, who earned $600,000 for the victory. His career bankroll now stands at $695,600.
Friends Lake paid $24.80 to place and $12.20 to show. Value Plus returned $6.40 and $5. The Cliff's Edge showed for $4.80. the $2 exacta was worth $443.