Overlooked Ice Box , the less fancied of two runners trained by Nick Zito for owner Robert LaPenta, ground out a nose victory at odds of 20-1 over another outsider, 29-1 Pleasant Prince, in the $750,000 Florida Derby (gr. I) (VIDEO) March 20 at Gulfstream Park. Rule , the 9-5 choice in the field of 11, led through most of the stretch but could not hold on after opening a two-length advantage at the eighth pole, finishing third.
Ridden by Jose Lezcano, Ice Box rallied from last to win the Florida Derby. He rebounded from a fifth-place finish in the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) Feb. 20 when he was 12 lengths behind Eskendereya , who skipped the Florida Derby in favor of Aqueduct's Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I) April 3.
Ice Box paid $43.40, $20.40 and $9.60, topping a $509.60 exacta with Pleasant Prince ($26.40, $11.60). The winner completed the 1 1/8-mile journey in 1:49.19 on a fast track.
Lael Stables' Lentenor , the full brother to the ill-fated Barbaro, the 2006 Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner, rallied mildly at the rail to finish fourth in his first start on dirt for trainer Michael Matz.
Disappointing was second choice Radiohead, who stalked the pace most of the way at odds of 5-2, moving up to third after six furlongs before fading to ninth.
Miner's Reserve, who was trained by Zito for LaPenta as an uncoupled entry, was never a factor while finishing 10th at odds of 6-1.
With the victory, Ice Box, a Kentucky-bred son of Pulpit out of Spice Island, a grade II-winning mare by Tabasco Cat, zoomed into contention for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum Brands! (gr. I). He came into the race with $7,500 in graded earnings from the Fountain of Youth, his only prior stakes race.
Zito, a two-time Kentucky Derby winner, must now decide whether to train Ice Box up to the big race or get another start in before the Run for the Roses. Zito, who won the Derby in 1991 with Strike the Gold and 1994 with Go for Gin, seemed to be leaning toward training Ice Box up to the Derby.
"It's a possibility,'' said Zito of running Ice Box before the Kentucky Derby. "You never say never. But this is a tough race. Obviously, he's had a tough winter like all these 3-year-olds. He's had three 1 1/8th-mile races in a row. You can think about running him back in three weeks, but we have to figure out what we're going to do with him.''
Rule, with John Velazquez aboard, went to the lead early but was quickly engaged by Pulsion and Corey Nakatani and those vied head-and-head for the lead through swift fractions of :23.21, :46.46, and 1:10.76. Pulsion backed out of it on the final turn as Rule took command. But Rule was cooked by the hot pace and shortened stride late. Pleasant Prince, after a fine middle move for Julien Leparoux, ranged into contention in upper stretch and eventually grabbed the lead near the sixteenth pole.
Ice Box, who showed no early speed while racing last for three-quarters of mile, rallied five wide from the top of the stretch.
"I just let him go at his own pace through the first part of the race and didn't want to rush him,'' Lezcano said.
Following Lentenor between horses past the three-eighths pole, Lezcano guided Ice Box to the outside for the stretch drive.
"I got into him a little more at the three-eighths and that's when he took off and started flying,'' Lezcano said.
Ice Box proved best with a determined late effort, closing in the middle of the track on the outside of Pleasant Prince to get up at the wire. Rule finished 1 1/4 lengths behind the first two.
After breaking his maiden at Meadowlands Oct. 30, Ice Box has won twice in three starts at Gulfstream Park this year. He captured a first-level allowance race at nine furlongs by a half-length over Pleasant Prince Jan. 18 prior to his mid-pack effort in the Fountain of the Youth. Overall, Ice Box has won three of seven starts while boosting his overall earnings to $506,534 with the winning purse of $450,000.
Ice Box had worked solidly in two drills since the Fountain of Youth, recording a bullet four-furlong move of :47 1/5 at Palm Meadows March 13.
Bred by Denlea Park, the winning chestnut colt was a $125,000 Keeneland yearling buy by LaPenta in September 2008.
The surprising Pleasant Prince, trained by Wesley Ward for Ken and Sarah Ramsey, improved after running fourth in the Fountain of Youth.
WinStar Farm's homebred Rule, who paid $3.40 to show, was coming off a front-running three-length win in Tampa Bay Downs' Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III) in his 3-year-old debut for trainer Todd Pletcher.
Velazquez said Rule, who had a four-race winning streak snapped, went too fast early in the race.
"It was hard with all those sprinters in there,'' Velazquez said. "I knew we were going too fast, but it was hard settling down with all of them. I probably should have taken my horse out of there (the pace battle) from the beginning.''
It was 4 1/2 lengths to Lentenor, who was followed by First Dude , Pulsion, Game On Dude, Soaring Empire , Radiohead, Miner's Reserve, and Best Actor.