High Fly, with Jerry Bailey, wins Florida Derby.

High Fly, with Jerry Bailey, wins Florida Derby.

AP/Equi-Photo, Gary Rothstein

High Fly Ends Zito's Florida Derby Drought

Blanked with his 16 previous starters, trainer Nick Zito finally won the Florida Derby (gr. I) when his heavily favored High Fly rolled to a confident victory for Jerry Bailey Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

Zito has used the Florida Derby as a prep for three of his four Triple Crown victories, including both of his Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winners, Strike the Gold (1991) and Go for Gin (1994). Like the Belmont Stakes and Travers last year with Birdstone, the popular conditioner was able to put an end to a lengthy losing streak.

The Zito-conditioned Noble Causeway ran on well from far back to finish second.

Zito was thrilled with both of his competitors.

"These horses both ran really huge," Zito said. "They both showed a lot of courage. All the way down the lane I was yelling 'Show me your heart. Show me your heart.' And they did. They both can go a mile and a quarter. No question. It was very gratifying to watch them today."

Live Oak Plantation's High Fly, who was stricken with a slight fever a little more than a week ago, was ideally positioned between horses on the outside of pacesetting B.B. Best. The chestnut son of Atticus reached the front in the final furlong and pulled away to a 1 1/2-length victory. The final time for the $1 million race, contested at 1 1/8 miles, was 1:49 2/5. They crawled home the final eighth in :13 2/5 as High Fly finished under a strong hand ride from Bailey.

The race was a virtual carbon copy of High Fly's victory in the Fountain of Youth March 5 at Gulfstream when High Fly prevailed by three-quarters of a length over Bandini.

"He was just as impressive as he was in the Fountain of Youth," said Bailey, who won his third Florida Derby. "I let him run along the last 100 yards. My plan was to lay off B.B. Best and run to the wire. He's got a lot of plusses. He gets you out of trouble.

"The instant you move your hands on him, he's going to know it. He's very impressive to me."

The Fountain of Youth was High Fly's first effort as part of Zito's barn. William White trained the colt in his first four starts, winning the first three before a third-place finish in the Holy Bull (gr. III) Feb. 5, High Fly's only loss in six lifetime starts. The $600,000 winning purse swelled High Fly's earnings to $897,300.

B.B. Best, third in the FOY, set a legitimate pace with Jorge Chavez riding -– :22 4/5, :45 4/5, 1:09 4/5 and 1:36 – before giving way to High Fly and finishing third again. Noble Causeway, making his stakes debut with Edgar Prado, made an impressive stretch run, finishing two lengths in front of B.B. Best.

"You'll hear from him in the future," Prado said. "Nick has done a super job with him. I'm very proud of him."

Park Avenue Ball finished fourth, 1 1/2 lengths behind. It was 7 1/2 lengths back to Mighty Mecke, followed by Vicarage, Papi Chullo, Evil Minister and Wallstreet Scandal, who was eased in the stretch.

The Kentucky-bred High Fly paid $4.40, $2.60 and $2.60 as the 6-5 choice in the field of nine. Noble Causeway returned $3.60 and $2.80. B.B. Best was $3.80 to show.

High Fly, who also won the Aventura Stakes, became the fourth 3-year-old colt to win three stakes at a Gulfstream meeting. Easy Spur (1959), Spectacular Bid (1979) and Fly So Free (1991) also won three.

"High Fly should just train for the (Kentucky) Derby now," Zito said. "We'll see what happens. Maybe these are the horses that will show people that you can win the Derby off a five-week layoff."

(Chart, Equibase)