Friends Lake won the Florida Derby in a final time of 1:51 1/5.

Friends Lake won the Florida Derby in a final time of 1:51 1/5.

AP/David Adame

Kentucky Derby Trail: Slow Florida Derby No Cause For Alarm Just Yet

This is the first of a two-part column on this past weekend's races. The first will deal with Saturday's card at Gulfstream Park, featuring the Florida Derby (gr. I) and Swale Stakes (gr. II). The remainder of the Derby preps will be discussed in part two.

Before we get into the weekend's performances, there is one important item to get out of the way first. For everyone throwing out the Florida Derby horses due to the slow time of 1:51 1/5, if you follow the Beyer figures religiously, you're obviously going to toss the race after the winner earned a 92. If you're not a Beyer pundit, don't toss it strictly off the slow final time and closing fractions. It might be best to wait and see how these horses perform next time out. Year after year, the track on Florida Derby day turns into a sandbox, getting slower as the day goes on, and times (final and closing) become virtually meaningless.

Monarchos' performance in the 2001 Florida Derby was hailed as one of the most brilliant Kentucky Derby (gr. I) preps in memory, even though he went in 1:49 4/5. The year before, the two most brilliant 3-year-olds in Florida, Hal's Hope and High Yield, battled to the wire in 1:51 2/5, with High Yield coming off that race to win the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) in 1:48 3/5. Halory Hunter was beaten three lengths in the Florida Derby in 1:49 1/5, but bounced back to win the Blue Grass in 1:47 4/5. Captain Bodgit won his Florida Derby in 1:50 3/5, and came back to win the Wood Memorial (gr. I) in the slop in 1:48 1/5. Strike the Gold was beaten a length in the '91 Florida Derby, run in 1:50 2/5, but came back to win the Blue Grass in 1:48 2/5 before winning the Kentucky Derby. Unbridled won the Florida Derby in 1:52, but wound up romping on the first Saturday in May. And Snow Chief won his Florida Derby in 1:51 4/5, but returned home to win the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) by six lengths in 1:48 3/5. So, although, these may indeed be slow two-turn horses, it's not necessarily because they ran slow in the Florida Derby.

Afer all, Holy Bull's 115 Beyer in the Florida Derby, and Unbridled's Song's 114, and Empire Maker's 108, and Captain Bodgit's 104 didn't do them much good in the Kentucky Derby. On the other hand, Thunder Gulch'a 101 didn't seem to hurt him on the first Saturday in May. And who would you rather have had a wager on in the Kentucky Derby, Point Given after his 110 in the Santa Anita Derby or Charismatic after his 94? Even if you swear by the Beyers, it may be better to wait until you see the final Derby past performances before stating now that a horse can't win the race because of low figures.

The negative aspect of the Florida Derby is that Farnum Alley, a 58-1 shot who had been beaten almost 10 lengths by Birdstone in his last start, closed from far back to be beaten only four lengths. He may turn out to be a top-class horse, but right now, there simply were too many horses right there at the finish. And Tapit, who came up empty in the stretch, still was beaten only 5 3/4 lengths, and that was with coughing 10 times walking back to the barn and having a good deal of mucus in his lungs after being scoped.

But let's also look at the positives. This not only was just a prep race in relation to the Kentucky Derby, it's not even the final prep race. There is still a lot of time for some of these horses to continue to develop and improve, and it can also be said that the Florida Derby was a step in the right direction for the first three finishers. Friends Lake was coming off a two-month layoff and a 12 3/4-length drubbing in the holy Bull (gr. III), and there's no reason why he shouldn't keep improving, especially with his pedigree. The only cloud right now is Kimmel's comment that he is seriously thinking about going straight for the Derby. He may reconsider after looking at the history books, which state emphatically that tough, battle-tested horses win the Derby, not fresh horses.

Value Plus was coming off only one seven-furlong romp in 1:21 2/5, and ran gamely stretching out to nine furlongs and putting in a :23 3/5 quarter from the half to the three-quarters. He may have a dubious pedigree for a mile and a quarter, but those massive strides should be able to carry him a long way, especially now that he has a foundation under him and shown he can rate kindly off the pace. He is the type of horse, like those mentioned earlier, who could come off this effort and win his next start in brilliant fashion. But he still a bit awkward coming out of the gate, taking a while to get his feet under him, and that could be costly in a race like the Derby.

Finally, The Cliff's Edge could very easily have won the race with a clear, outside trip. He is another colt with a humongous stride, and the inside, in traffic, is the last place you want to have him. He was in tight quarters on both turns, and got bumped around pretty good each time, returning with some minor cuts that fortunately weren't serious. Look for Sellers to learn from this experience and give him every chance from now on.

As for Read the Footnotes, everyone figured he'd regress off his taxing effort in the Fountain of Youth and he did. Simple as that. He's not a real big horse, and running inside a monster like Value Plus didn't help. All we can do for now is see how he rebounds in his next start, which likely will be in the Wood Memorial, where he'll face Wimbledon, Birdstone, Master David, and very possibly Value Plus again.

The horse who left the biggest impression on Saturday was Eurosilver, who had a perfect prep race in the Swale Stakes. He looked super in the paddock, and should be sharp for his two-turn Derby prep in the Blue Grass Stakes. What was impressive about his race was that he was two lengths off a :44 3/5 pace set by two fast and classy horses in Wynn Dot Comma and Chapel Royal. Not being a sprinter, he started losing contact with them a bit after passing the three-eighths pole, and looked hopelessly beaten (by Wynn Dot Comma) from the quarter pole to the eighth pole. But once he changed leads passing the eighth pole, he leveled off beautifully and started gobbling up the ground like a fresh horse. Normally, in a case like this it's the horse in front that's tiring more than the closer coming on again. But when Eurosilver took off, he accelerated away from Chapel Royal and a seemingly strong Dashboard Drummer in a flash. The chart says he was beaten a head, but the photo sure looked like a nose, and he was in front one step past the wire.

The only question was why Javier Castellano started whipping him left-handed three times passing the three-eighths pole after he couldn't close in on the leaders. It would be understandable if this were the Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) with the sprint championship on the line, but when a distance horse is prepping for the Derby and running his eyeballs out through fractions he's never come close to seeing before, he's no doubt giving you all he has, and there doesn't seem to be a need to hit him so early in the race. That Eurosilver kept plugging away until he found a second gear after changing leads, then accelerated the way he did, shows that this colt is all racehorse.

Nick Zito came up with a plan last November to have him peaking on May 1, and he's stuck with it. Having already won the 1 1/16-mile Lane's End Breeders' Futurity (gr. II) with a breathtaking move on the turn, it was more important for Zito to use this time teaching the horse and keeping him sharp, rather than having him plod along in one two-turn race after another. Now, all he needs is a good effort, whether it's a win or a strong second or third, in the Blue Grass to set him up perfectly for a big effort in the Derby.