by Greg Melikov - 03/27/2006
This year's Florida Derby, I'm sorry to say, lives up to its date - April Fool's Day. That's because the prep is either too close or not far enough away from the Kentucky Derby.
When Gulfstream Park's showcase event is held in March, 3-year-olds heading to Churchill Downs can fit in another meaningful prep. Because the $1 million race has been staged five weeks before the first Saturday in May, top contenders often skip it. History proves that's the way to go.
No horse that trained up to the Kentucky Derby for five weeks has smelled the roses in a half-century. Remember Needles? He did after taking the Florida Derby. From Monarchos in '01 back to Needles in '56, they and six others won both when Gulfstream's big race was in March.
Only Northern Dancer in '64 and Tim Tam in '58 accomplished the feat when the Florida Derby was in April. However, Northern Dancer captured the Blue Grass two weeks before winning at Churchill Downs and Tim Tam took the Kentucky Derby Trial with less rest.
The 55th running of the Florida Derby, scheduled for Saturday, hasn't attracted the cream of the sophomore crop. The most talented appears to be unbeaten Barbaro, trained by Mike Matz. However, three victories were on the turf.
Barbaro, ridden by Edgar Prado, did win the $150,000 Holy Bull Stakes on Feb. 4, covering the 1 1/8 miles in the good time of 1:49 1/5 on a sloppy Gulfstream surface. He's the only horse in the field with two graded stakes victories at the distance.
Also-rans will try him again in the Florida Derby, but I believe class will tell. Who will be runner-up is a tossup.
Trainer Nick Zito's Great Point, three-quarters of a length back in second in the Holy Bull, was 10th and last in the Fountain of Youth (FOY) on March 4. Jeremy Rose retains the mount. The horse's lone victory came last year when he broke his maiden.
Kiaran McLaughlin's Flashy Bull, third in the Holy Bull beaten a length and a neck, was moved up to second behind First Samurai when Corinthian was disqualified to third in the FOY. Rafael Bejarano climbs back aboard. The horse is one for eight.
Todd Pletcher trainee Sunriver, a distant seventh in the Holy Bull, did bounce back on the FOY card to win an allowance race at 1 1/8 miles guided by John Velazquez. The runner-up was High Blues, trained by David Paulus and ridden by Cornelio Velasquez, another starter.
On March 4, Sharp Humor, trained by Dale Romans and ridden by Mark Guidry in the irons, earned a berth after his neck victory in the Swale, a graded sprint. While stretching out from seven furlongs, his pedigree indicates the colt can get the distance.
I like Sunriver to finish second, ahead of Sharp Humor, mainly because he ran the 1 1/8 miles four-fifths of a second faster than the FOY time of 1:49.
Others trying their luck:
Doc Cheney, another Zito trainee. He finished a good second to Pletcher's stakes-winner Saint Augustus in a Feb. 26 allowance race in his first try around two turns. Saint Augustus was coming off a poor ninth in the Holy Bull.
Rehoboth, trained by Frank Gomes with Javier Castellano getting the mount. He was only 1 ¾ lengths behind in fifth after being steadied along the backstretch in the FOY.
Charming Image, trained by Anthony Pecoraro. This claimer captured three straight races this year at Gulfstream.
Since horses coming off the pace at 1 1/8 miles are doing much better this meeting than front-runners, those that can rate stand the best chance of making it to the winner's circle. Only 15 percent of the 40 winners this meeting went wire-to-wire compared to last year's 29 percent of front-runners in 65 races.
Over the past several decades I've witnessed just about every Florida Derby, either in person, on TV or via simulcast. One of the most memorable races was in '95.
It pitted favored Suave Prospect against Thunder Gulch. I had witnessed their exciting duel in the FOY weeks earlier when Thunder Gulch triumphed by a neck when the race was 1 1/16 miles. The winner paid a handsome $11.40.
In the Florida Derby, Suave Prospect was part of a three-horse entry that was favored over Thunder Gulch on my birthday, March 11.
Jerry Bailey, back aboard Suave Prospect, was hotter than a summer day in South Florida. He had scored repeatedly. Mike Smith returned on Thunder Gulch.
Both stalked the pacesetters until the far turn. Then Bailey gunned Suave Prospect from fourth to the lead and was 1 ½ lengths ahead in the upper stretch.
Under strong handling, Thunder Gulch closed the gap while forced inward, wore down Suave Prospect and won by a nose, the third of five such finishes since '60.
Bailey, while losing the big one, set the record for most victories by a jockey in a Gulfstream afternoon - seven.
After finishing fourth in the Blue Grass, Thunder Gulch went off at 25-1 and, with Gary Stevens aboard, edged Tejano Run, ridden by Bailey, in the 121st Kentucky Derby.
Suave Prospect, with Julie Krone aboard, ran 11th after a very wide trip, followed by Talkin Man, ridden by Smith.