If horseplayers had a question of which runner to bet in the $1 million Besilu Stables Florida Derby (gr. I) at Gulfstream Park March 29, the one Javier Castellano was named on seemed as sure a shot as any.
Seeking his first Florida Derby score but out to gain his fifth overall victory on the afternoon card at the South Florida track, Castellano delivered the kind of ride on the victorious Constitution that illustrates exactly why he's one of the best in the nation.
Jose Garoffalo, trainer of runner-up Wildcat Red, summed up exactly what happened.
"We lost the rail at one point and Castellano was smart enough to take the rail at the top of the stretch, and that was it. It was a hell of a race," he said.
Third in the pocket trip early behind pacesetting Fountain of Youth (gr. II) winner Wildcat Red, the D'wildcat colt who took the Hutcheson Stakes (gr. III) sprinting before stretching out in the Fountain of Youth, Castellano sent his mount off the final turn through a paint-scraping gap along the rail. The lightly raced Constitution responded with a surge to get up by a neck (VIDEO), acing his stakes debut and collecting 100 points on the road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
"I'm very, very proud of him," said trainer Todd Pletcher, who collected his fourth victory on the Florida Derby Day card with the undefeated Constitution. "It's a testament to the quality of horse he is—to go from a maiden to an allowance to a grade I and to show a different running style and get some dirt in his face and put in an effort like that against much more seasoned horses. It was a huge effort."
Wildcat Red fought back brilliantly in his first try at the 1 1/8-mile distance after setting measured fractions of :24.01, :48.19, and 1:12 under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez while leading General a Rod. But in the end, despite battling hard into the final furlong after a mile in 1:36.46, he could not withstand the craftily ridden son of Tapit .
"I'm not disappointed, it was a hell of a race, he did a great job and he was himself like he usually is," Garaffolo said of the runner-up. "We just got beat. I think Castellano was very, very smart and took the rail, and that was the difference. That's why we lost the race. He never quit running...I think we're thinking seriously to go to Kentucky if the horse comes back in good shape."
Final time for the sophomore test of eight was 1:49.16 on a fast track.
Even-money favorite Cairo Prince, who had not raced since winning the Jan. 25 Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II), finished a lackluster fourth behind General a Rod, who was 1 1/4 lengths back of Wildcat Red in third. East Hall, Matador, Spot, and Allstar completed the order of finish.
"We're obviously disappointed," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said of Cairo Prince. "He flattened out late. He looked like he got there and in the clear, which is what he likes and he just flattened out. So, it's disappointing, but we'll look to carry on and go on to the Derby and hope that we regroup and he rebounds from this effort.
"Maybe the nine weeks (off) was telling on him, maybe the inside was better, it's hard to say, but we'll regroup and move on to May 3. (Jockey Luis Saez) just said that he got there and flattened out a little bit. He's fine, he just didn't fire like he did last time. If 24 (points) don't get us in, then we don't go to Kentucky. We feel like we'll get in and if we don't, we won't."
With the UAE Derby (UAE-I) and Louisiana Derby (gr. II) run the same day, there was a bit of shifting on the leaderboard for the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field. Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) winner Vicar's In Trouble came back to take the Louisiana Derby and now sits on top of the standings with 120 points. UAE Derby winner Toast of New York is second with 100 points, and Constitution ranks third.
Wildcat Red is fifth (90) behind Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) winner Intense Holiday, who was second in the Louisiana Derby. Cairo Prince is currently 16th on the list with 24 points, but could lose that spot with major preps like the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), Arkansas Derby (gr. I), and Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) still to come.
Off at odds of 3-1 in his stakes debut while making his third start for WinStar Farm and Twin Creeks Racing, Constitution paid $8.60, $4.20, and $3.60. Wildcat Red brought $4.80 and $3.40 at 7-2, while 9-2 General a Rod paid $3.40.
"At the three-eighths pole I thought I'd have to go around the two pacemaker horses," said Castellano, the leading rider in the nation who broke his own single-season record for wins at Gulfstream earlier this month. "But one thing, it was kind of early and second, I was going to lose a lot of ground. I just took my shot and it worked out great.
"I didn't want to get to the hole and move too soon, a premature move. My mount is a young horse and stretching out to a mile and an eighth. You want to take consideration and save something for the end. I didn't want to check and lose the race like that. I had my spot and I kept it all the way to the top of the stretch."
"I was very confident with the horse. The first time I rode the horse, he really impressed me. He broke slow out of the gate and he kind of ran off on the backside and I hooked up with the pacemaker. We went in :22, :44 and the horse still had something in the tank at the top of the stretch. That impressed me very much. As soon as I jumped off the horse, I told Mr. Walden and Mr. Pletcher, 'That's a super horse.' I've never seen a horse like that, a first-time starter, do that the way he did it. It was impressive."
Bred in Kentucky by Grapestock and Fox Hill Farms out of the Distorted Humor mare Baffled, 3-year-old Constitution was a $400,000 purchase by Twin Creeks Racing at the 2012 Fasig-Tipton New York Saratoga select yearling from the Vinery Sales consignment. The winner's share of the Florida Derby purse, $600,000, bumped his earnings to $649,350.
"I've ridden him twice, and the second time was very impressive," Castellano said. "We stretched him out, he broke better out of the gate, he ran two turns. I think he learned a lot the second time. He was able to relax beautifully in the race. I think the horse is learning little by little, and he has got a great future."
According to Pletcher, the Florida Derby effort was exactly what he needed to see from Constitution on the road to the Kentucky Derby.
"It gives you confidence moving forward, knowing he got some education and got some dirt in his face," he said.