Normally, the second wave of 3-year-olds doesn’t hit the shore all at once in a grade I, $750,000 race, but Gulfstream’s decision to run the Florida Derby (gr. I) six weeks before the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), has chased a number of the top 3-year-olds out of town, including the first three finishers of the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II), leaving only a couple of proven stakes horses and a slew of allowance or maiden winners staring at a potential grade I gift.
When was the last time you saw the 1, 2, 3 finishers of a prep all skip the race they were supposedly prepping for to go somewhere else? For the record, Fountain of Youth winner Eskendereya and runner-up Jackson Bend (who has never been outside Florida) are heading north for the Wood Memorial (gr. I) and third-place finisher, Aikenite , is on target for the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I)
Considering the Florida Derby produced two of the last four Kentucky Derby winners from its old spot on the calendar, this seems like a classic case of fixing something that wasn’t broken. So where does that leave this year’s Florida Derby?
It actually leaves it with a fascinating field of late-developing 3-year-olds, several of whom have the potential to become serious Derby contenders. Good luck, however, trying to pick them out.
On paper, they all have to beat Rule, the only proven two-turn stakes horse, who has ratted off four straight wins. But, despite his enormous potential, the fact is, he’s only won a pair of grade III races and has proven himself to be one dimensional by being in front at every call of those four wins. In a year loaded with speed horses, it is important for him to not only run big, but to show he can do so from off the pace. He won’t get another opportunity before the Derby.
As for the others, you’re going to have to choose among up-and-comers Soaring Empire , Radiohead, Miner's Reserve, Ice Box , First Dude , Lentenor , Best Actor, and Game On Dude. They aren’t household names now, but any one of them could be by Sunday. The main problem they face other than taking on a tough foe in Rule is that they need to finish second to pretty much assure themselves a spot in the Derby field. Does anyone remember Sunriver, who ran a strong third in the Florida Derby, but didn’t have enough earnings to make the Kentucky Derby field?
If you finish third, you’d better be prepared to come back in three weeks in either the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) or Blue Grass Stakes or a week after that in the Lexington Stakes (gr. II), which like the Blue Grass, is run on Polytrack. Nowadays, the sound of “three weeks” sends shivers up the spine of many a trainer, even though races like the Wood Memorial and Arkansas Derby were run two weeks out for many years, and the Blue Grass nine days out. Now, trainers are content have their final prep five, six, and sometimes even seven weeks out.
Soaring Empire , who was featured in the Feb. 1 column, is one we’ve been high on since his (much better than it looked on paper) third-place finish in the Iroquois Stakes (gr. III) at Churchill Downs. His 3-year-old debut in a seven-furlong allowance race Feb. 25 was a perfect return race, as he had to overcome a rough start and traffic problems while stuck on the rail down the backstretch, but still rallied in the final furlong to win by three-quarters of a length. His breeding, which was discussed in detail on Feb. 1, is as good as it gets. His trainer, Cam Gambolati, of Spend a Buck fame, claims he’s still an old-fashioned trainer who does not relish the thought of having to train a horse six weeks into the Derby and has no fear of running him back in three weeks. So, if he feels Soaring Empire needs another start before the Derby or needs additional earnings he would have no hesitation about giving him another start. This is one horse who would catapult way up everyone’s list with a big effort on Saturday.
So would Miner’s Reserve, who turned in arguably the most impressive maiden victory of the year at Gulfstream, drawing off to an impressive 5 1/2-length victory in 1:35.87 for the mile, which was slightly faster than Radiohead, a seasoned group/grade I and II stakes horse, ran the same day and significantly faster than another maiden winner, Game On Dude, who also has great potential. All three will square off on Saturday. Trainer Nick Zito had said Miner’s Reserve, who has had only two career starts, would be pointed for an allowance race and then the Derby Trial (gr. III) as a prep for the Preakness (gr. I), but those plans changed with the defection of Eskendereya.
Radiohead, who drew the outside post, has been perched and ready to swoop onto most everyone’s Top 10 list after his strong performance, in which he put away Champagne Stakes (gr. I) winner Homeboykris and drew off to a 3 1/4-length score, coming home his last quarter in a swift :23.80. The main question with him is how far he wants to go. The Florida Derby will go a long way in answering that.
Zito has a double-barreled threat, with Ice Box coming off a sneaky-good performance in the Fountain of Youth, in which he made a huge move on the far turn, going from 10th to fourth before flattening out in the stretch to finish fifth. That kind of running style is not conducive to Gulfstream, but he definitely should improve off that effort and likely will be under the proverbial radar, especially with all the action his stablemate is sure to get. This is an interesting dark horse for sure.
And then we come to the most famous non-stakes horse in the country, Lentenor, Barbaro’s baby brother, who was impressive breaking his maiden on grass before finishing a strong second in a turf allowance race. He has run once on Polytrack, but this will be his dirt debut. If he should win or finish second, his bandwagon will be standing room only. But this is a tough spot, especially with a good deal of pace pressure expected from Rule, First Dude, and Radiohead.
Two other horses coming out of the Fountain of Youth are fourth-place finisher Pleasant Prince and sixth-place finisher Pulsion, who has shown enough back class against top company to suggest he could be an interesting longshot possibility to at least hit the board in his second career start on dirt.
First Dude, who was beaten a head in a nine-furlong allowance race by Fly Down, is a hard-trying colt who has never been worse than second in four career starts, and like many of the others, looks to have a bright future.
Finally, there is Best Actor, who has decent tactical speed and is better than he showed in his last start.
Trying to separate these untested horses, all looking for at least a second-place finish, is not an easy task. Even if Rule uses his stakes experience and combination of speed and class to handle this bunch, watch out for what could be the most compelling and important battle for second since Master David nosed out Eddington for the place spot in the 2004 Wood Memorial, putting himself in the Derby and keeping Eddington out. Considering what’s at stake, it should be a fun race to watch and bet on.