Quality Road turned back a bid from even-money favorite Dunkirk in upper stretch and drew away for a sensational 1 3/4-length victory in the $750,000 Florida Derby (gr. I) (VIDEO) March 28 at Gulfstream Park. The son of Elusive Quality set a new 1 1/8-mile course record in 1:47.72.
A Virginia homebred of Edward Evans, Quality Road earned his second consecutive graded stakes win and established himself as one of the top contenders for the $2-million Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) May 2 at Churchill Downs. He banked $450,000 for the score.
With John Velazquez aboard, Quality Road took advantage of a quick early pace set by longshot Casey's On Call, who posted splits of :23.49 for a quarter-mile and :46.83 for a half-mile. The Jimmy Jerkens trainee made his winning move midway on the far turn, while Theregoesjojo, also close-up throughout, came up to challenge under Kent Desormeaux. Quality Road covered six furlongs in 1:10.66.
But Dunkirk, a $3.7-million yearling making only his third start for trainer Todd Pletcher, came from off the pace with a bold five-wide move under Garrett Gomez and was Quality Road’s biggest threat when they made the turn. Dunkirk, who scored a convincing allowance victory at the Florida Derby distance Feb. 19, looked Quality Road in the eye in upper stretch and appeared to have the leader at his mercy with a furlong remaining. But Quality Road found more and slowly inched clear until putting the race away inside the sixteenth-pole.
“I was just biding my time," Velazquez said. "He relaxed. I didn’t have to wrestle him going into the backside. I didn’t really think it was a lot (objection). He got close to me, but never passed me.”
Runner-up Dunkirk was six lengths better than third-place Theregoesjojo, who clipped heels with Quality Road around the final turn and had to be steadied. Desormeaux claimed foul on Quality Road immediately after the race, but the objection was denied. Stately Character finished fourth at 87-1.
Seven horses went to the gate in the Florida Derby, as Danger to Society and Europe were scratched. Danger to Society instead will run in the April 4 Wood Memorial (gr. I) at Aqueduct. Europe, also trained by Pletcher, was expected to be a “rabbit” to entice speedy Quality Road into a quicker early pace.
After the race, Jerkens was ecstatic with his colt, while Pletcher complained that the Gulfstream strip had an unfair speed advantage.
“Today’s effort was terrific," Jerkens said. "He sat nice for John, didn’t give him any trouble, and rated. When we went by the pacesetter, John gave him a breather. That was the whole thing. He didn’t open up. He had a lot left to deal with Dunkirk.
"I’ll probable stay here (Palm Meadows) and then go directly to Churchill Downs. We won't race again (until the Derby). It’s only five weeks. When he goes to stud, they look for a lot of speed, and he has that (referring to track record).”