Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin knew he was taking a risk when he decided to bypass the Besilu Stables Fountain of Youth (gr. II) with Miller Lite Holy Bull (gr. II) winner Cairo Prince , waiting instead to run in the March 29 Besilu Stables Florida Derby (gr. I) at Gulfstream Park.
"The negative is that we skipped a race and we're going to have 60 days in between and that's not always easily done in horse racing," McLaughlin said earlier this week in an exclusive Blood-Horse Q&A. "But the positives are that we have a fresh, happy, healthy horse. He ran so fast on figures in the Holy Bull that we were afraid of regression coming back in the Fountain of Youth. We said we were just going to give up a race."
Since Cairo Prince galloped to a 5 3/4-length score and earned a 95 Beyer Speed Figure in the 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull, contenders like Wildcat Red, General a Rod, Social Inclusion, and Constitution have emerged on the scene in South Florida, while others like Honor Code have gone to the sidelines.
Although he has been training forwardly at Palm Meadows, the Pioneerof the Nile colt now has little margin for error on the road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). Racing for Godolphin, Terry Murray, Paul Braverman, Harvey Clarke, and Craig Robertson, he has just 14 points on the Derby leaderboard—10 earned for his Holy Bull and 4 from a tough beat to Honor Code in the Remsen (gr. II) last year. The top of the leaderboard features We Miss Artie and Samraat with 60 points each.
"We hope that he finishes one, two, three, or four so that we do get into the Kentucky Derby," McLaughlin said of the 9-5 morning line favorite, who leaves post 3 in a field of 8 with regular rider Luis Saez in the irons. "That's the most important thing, but considering the way he's training and with how he's doing, we expect him to run very well. If we finish second or third and don't win, it's not the end of the world because we're pointing for the Derby...I could see us finishing second or third here because the track is really still speed-favoring.
"But we're trying to win, for sure. It's an important race...We feel like it's a plus to let the other horses run more frequently and beat each other up a bit."
Two contenders who come into the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby off significant tangles are Fountain of Youth winner Wildcat Red and his tenacious rival General a Rod. The two first met going a mile in the Jan. 1 Gulfstream Derby, where J. Armando Rodriguez's General a Rod edged Honors Stable Corp's Wildcat Red by a head after dueling for the win. Wildcat Red went on to win the Hutcheson Stakes (gr. III) sprinting seven furlongs by 4 3/4 lengths for trainer Jose Garoffalo, while Mike Maker kept General a Rod out until the Fountain of Youth Feb. 22.
In that 1 1/16-mile event, the two hooked up from the start and hounded each other all the way down the stretch, where Wildcat Red got revenge for his Gulfstream Derby loss by reversing the margin to score by a head.
Wildcat Red, a son of D'wildcat, is the 3-1 second choice on the morning line and will be ridden by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez from the rail.
"I'm OK with the post position," Garoffalo said. "He's the speed of the race. He can go on the lead and the post position will be in favor of him. He likes the inside. He likes to go inside horses. His previous two races, he was on the inside and got beat (a head) and the other one he won. It's going to be OK. He's got the ability and the versatility to rate. I'm not worried about the post position."
General a Rod, by Roman Ruler, gets Joel Rosario from the 6 hole at 7-2. Javier Castellano, who was aboard in the Fountain of Youth, opts to ride 4-1 Constitution for trainer Todd Plecher.
"The 6 is good," Maker said. "We've got to press him (Wildcat Red). If Constitution chooses to do so, that would be fine too. The speed's to our inside, so it kind of gives us options, whereas everybody else might be forced to force their hand a little."
Constitution, a Tapit colt who runs for WinStar Farm and Twin Creeks Racing, is undefeated in two starts, his most recent a Feb. 22 allowance event going 1 1/16 miles at Gulfstream. He won by 3 1/4 wire-to-wire lengths and draws post 4 in his stakes debut.
"He's doing very well," Pletcher said. "We're very pleased with the way he's coming into the race. I'm happy with post 4. We're outside of Wildcat Red and inside of General a Rod, so we're looking for a forwardly placed position. We'll play it off the break and let Javier make that decision as things unfold."
A runner who would make a welcome addition to the Kentucky Derby scene is the Pulpit gelding Spot, who races for Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito and owner Joseph Moss. He came off a fifth in the Hutcheson to upset the March 1 Swale Stakes (gr. II) by 2 1/2 lengths over highly regarded No Nay Never, and will be ridden by Corey Lanerie from the outside.
John Oxley's Matador, winner of the Cup and Saucer stakes back in October on the Woodbine Polytrack, but fifth in the March 8 Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) and fourth in the Sam F. Davis, gets another shot.
"We're just trying to give our horse another chance," trainer Mark Casse said. "We thought his last race wasn't a true indication of his ability, but we'll find out on Saturday."
The Florida Derby anchors a 14-race program that offers eight stakes including the $300,000 Gulfstream Oaks (gr. II), $200,000 Pan American (gr. IIT), $150,000 Rampart (gr. III), $150,000 Orchid (gr. IIIT), $100,000 Appleton (gr. IIIT) and $100,000 Skip Away (gr. III). It will be part of a one-hour telecast on NBC Sports Network from 6:30-7:30 p.m. EDT.
$1 million Besilu Stables Florida Derby (gr. I, Race 14, approximate post 6:48 p.m. EDT), 3YOs, 1 1/8 miles (dirt)
PP, Horse, Jockey, Trainer, Odds
1. Wildcat Red, J. Velazquez, J. Garoffalo, 3-1
2. Matador, J. Leparoux, M Casse, 15-1
3. Cairo Prince, L. Saez, K McLaughlin, 9-5
4. Constitution, J. Castellano, T A Pletcher, 4-1
5. East Hall, J. Leyva, W A Kaplan, 20-1
6. General a Rod, J. Rosario, M Maker, 7-2
7. Allstar, O. Bocachica, M J Vitali, 30-1
8. Spot, C. Lanerie, N P Zito, 8-1
All runners carry 122 pounds