Florida Derby Field Remains in Flux

A March 28 teleconference sponsored by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association was designed to profile entrants in the April 2 Florida Derby (gr. I) at Gulfstream Park, but it looks as though the prospective field will undergo some changes. Instead, the media event focused largely on equine health.

Scheduled on the teleconference were trainers Todd Pletcher and Kiaran McLaughlin, whose 3-year-olds Bandini and Closing Argument, respectively, were among the likely favorites for Saturday's $1 million race. But Pletcher, citing an unspecified but minor health issue with the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) runner-up, chose not to speak at the teleconference, while McLaughlin called Closing Argument's Florida Derby participation iffy.

"As we speak, he's 100% sound but he did miss a couple of days of training this week with a bruised foot," McLaughlin said. "We'll try to train him (March 30), and if he does fabulous, there's a chance we might still enter. This incident is minor, but it's terrible timing for a $1-million race."

Like Pletcher, McLaughlin said if Closing Argument, the winner of the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III) in his last start Feb. 5, does not make the Florida Derby, races such as the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I), and Arkansas Derby (gr. II) would be considered.

"With 35 days between the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), the timing was excellent, but now the Kentucky Derby is on the back burner," Pletcher said.

Also speaking on the teleconference was Dr. Larry Bramlage, who discussed the recent outbreak of strangles at South Florida's Palm Meadows Training Center, where five cases of the bacterial disease have been confirmed. Bramlage said that while strangles is usually relatively minor and easily contained, the timing of the outbreak has made it noteworthy.

"You have a lot of horses shipping from South to North and also compete in races like the Derby this time of year, which makes this an especially bad time," he said.

Greg Norman, who owns likely Florida Derby starter Papi Chullo, also spoke. Though a maiden, Papi Chullo was second in the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita Park Feb. 5 before he finished fourth in the Fountain of Youth.

"Even though he's a maiden, he has a resume that would make any 3-year-old proud," Norman said. "There's really nobody (in the Florida Derby) that I can say I'm especially scared of."