Peacock Racing Stables' Gunnevera has often found the odds against him.
As a foal, the big chestnut was orphaned 10 days after birth. As a yearling, he sold at the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale for a mere $16,000. At first asking and in his second start, he tangled with precocious rival Three Rules, who went on to dominate the Florida Sire Series as part of five straight wins. And for two of his three graded stakes scores—the 2016 Saratoga Special (G2) and this year's Xpressbet Fountain of Youth (G2)—he was sent off as the third choice, not the post time favorite.
But the underlying faith of trainer Antonio Sano remains. He picked Gunnevera from the first crop of 2011 Florida Derby winner Dialed In , and "always, always, always" believed the long-legged colt had the talent to race at the highest level. Even as Sano considers the colt's greatest challenge yet—a run in the April 1 Xpressbet Florida Derby (G1) from a difficult outside post under Javier Castellano at Gulfstream Park—his confidence is unwavering.
"It's a difficult post, but we have Three Rules inside of us, so that's going to help, because he's going to go," Sano said March 29, after Gunnevera drew the outside post 11 and was installed as the 9-5 favorite on the Florida Derby morning line. "We're going to be dropping to the rail. Castellano knows what to do. He knows this track better than anyone. And my horse comes from behind, so it's not a problem for us."
In his season debut, after closing the prior year with a Delta Downs Jackpot (G3) romp, Gunnevera lost momentum because of bumping on the turn for home in the Feb. 4 Lambholm South Holy Bull (G2)—but recovered to finish a strong second behind upset victor Irish War Cry. The colt then rallied from 10th in the March 4 Fountain of Youth, winning the 1 1/16-mile test by 5 3/4 lengths.
"The horse started out strong and with the longer the distances, he has become stronger and stronger," Sano said. "We've never been on this stage before, so we are nervous, I'll admit that. But at the same time, we have all the faith in the horse, and I know he's going to take us there."
The 66th running of Gulfstream's signature event serves as Florida's final steppingstone to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1). The Florida Derby has produced the winners of 58 Triple Crown races, 23 of them Kentucky Derby winners, including Nyquist last season.
"When I was a kid, my father said, 'One of these years maybe I'll win the Kentucky Derby,'" said Sano, a third-generation horseman. "Every day in Venezuela, I followed the racing here in America. Now I have the opportunity to win the race. In Venezuela, the Kentucky Derby is a big deal.
"The horse is a blessing. This is the biggest opportunity in my life."
While 11 were entered in the Florida Derby, only 10 are expected to start. Always Dreaming and Battalion Runner both passed the entry box for trainer Todd Pletcher, but he is expected to only send out allowance winner Always Dreaming Saturday. Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez is named on both colts.
By Bodemeister , Always Dreaming finished in the money in his first two starts last year before breaking his maiden by 11 1/2 lengths at Tampa Bay Downs in his first race around two turns in January. He came back March 4 to easily capture a 1 1/8-mile allowance at Gulfstream. He is owned by MeB Racing, Viola Racing, St. Elias Stables, and Brooklyn Boyz Stables.
"He's a horse that's just steadily improved throughout the winter and early spring," said Pletcher, who won previous editions of the Florida Derby with Materiality (2015), Constitution (2014), and Scat Daddy (2007). "We've kind of taken somewhat of a conservative approach to it so far with going to Tampa for a two-turn maiden and then coming back in the allowance race."
Three Rules, who finished third behind Gunnevera in the Fountain of Youth, entered the Florida Derby in search of his sixth triumph over the Gulfstream dirt for trainer Jose Pinchin.
After experiencing defeat for the first time with a sixth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), the son of Gone Astray came in a close second in the seven-furlong Swale (G2) Feb. 4. He returned to set the pace in the Fountain of Youth before finishing third, a half-length behind multiple grade 1 winner Practical Joke .
"Looking back on it, it was a hell of a good performance. He got pressured from the go by Irish War Cry, and (Practical Joke) took him on real early and didn't really give him a chance, but he ran real good. I thought it was a very good race," Pinchin said. "The Derby's here and we've got to run."
Pinchin named Luis Saez to ride Shade Tree Thoroughbreds, Tom Fitzgerald, and Geoff Roy's homebred colt from post 10.
The Dale Romans-trained Impressive Edge is also slated to step up to grade 1 company Saturday after winning a Gulfstream allowance. The son of 2002 Florida Derby winner Harlan's Holiday rated off the pace in the seven-furlong race March 5 before drawing off to win by eight lengths.
"Anyone who wins an allowance race by eight lengths is a good horse, because you know you're in with some tough competition," said Romans, who named Corey Lanerie to ride. "He did it so easy. He came back like he never did anything. He's a true athlete."
Conrad Farms' State of Honor, who set the pace before finishing second to heavily favored Tapwrit in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2); Hardway Stables' Talk Logistics, fourth in the both the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth; and Olympia Star's Charlie the Greek and D P Racing's Unbridled Holiday, who finished second and third, respectively, behind Always Dreaming in the March 4 allowance, will also seek their first stakes victory.
Gulfstream Park, Saturday, April 01, 2017, Race 14
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1State of Honor (ON) Julien R. Leparoux 122 Mark E. Casse 8/1 2 2Talk Logistics (FL) Joe Bravo 122 Edward Plesa, Jr. 30/1 3 3Charlie the Greek (FL) Leonel Reyes 122 Mikhail Yanakov 50/1 4 4Always Dreaming (KY) John R. Velazquez 122 Todd A. Pletcher 4/1 5 5Quinientos (KY) Carlos Montalvo 122 Enrique A. Sanchez 50/1 6 6Coleman Rocky (KY) Jose L. Ortiz 122 Gustavo Delgado 30/1 7 7Unbridled Holiday (FL) Nik Juarez 122 Patrick L. Biancone 30/1 8 8Impressive Edge (KY) Corey J. Lanerie 122 Dale L. Romans 12/1 9 9Battalion Runner (KY) John R. Velazquez 122 Todd A. Pletcher 3/1 10 10Three Rules (FL) Luis Saez 122 Jose Pinchin 8/1 11 11Gunnevera (KY) Javier Castellano 122 Antonio Sano 9/5
Gulfstream Park, Saturday, April 01, 2017, Race 14