The road to the Kentucky Derby runs through Florida every year. It only makes sense - it's too darned cold for real racing in the northeast over the winter, so smart trainers head to the reliably-warm environs of Gulfstream Park to wait for spring to arrive. This race, the key prep for the Florida Derby on April 2, has been a successful stepping stone to glory in Kentucky and beyond over the years. Just three years ago Orb was the winner both of the Fountain of Youth and the Kentucky Derby. One year earlier, Fountain of Youth winner Union Rags took the Belmont a few months later. Thunder Gulch and Spectacular Bid both won this race, the Kentucky Derby, and a second Triple Crown race as well. Bet Twice won this race and the Belmont. So, it all boils down to this - we are far from guaranteed to see a Triple Crown race winner in this six-horse field this year, but there is certainly a chance we will.
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These six horses - a very solid field despite the lack of numbers - will enter the starting gate at 5:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, Feb. 27 for a shot at their share of the $400,000 purse. There are also 50 Kentucky Derby points on the line for first, so the winner in this race will have all but clinched their spot in the gate in Louisville on the first Saturday in May. Here's how the field sets up:
Mohaymen, Junior Alvarado, 6/5: The current Kentucky Derby futures favorite is a very nice horse, and he should be - he sold for $2.2 million as a yearling in September 2014. His breeding is excellent - sire Tapit is red hot over the last couple of years and produced Belmont winner Tonalist, and the bloodlines on the dam side are very strong. More impressive than the price tag or the breeding, though, is what this unbeaten grey colt has done on the track. He has run only three times but has excelled each time. In two races at Aqueduct in November, and again at Gulfstream at the end of January, he has settled off the pace, showed a lot of patience, then made his move when appropriate and comfortably put away the field. All three races have been a mile or further, too, so we don't have the distance concerns that are typical of many youngsters at this stage in their career. He's a very impressive horse. He is lucky not to have to mess with the early pace, too, because there is a chance that things could get fast early on in this one. Jockey Junior Alvarado doesn't have a Triple Crown or Breeders' Cup win to his credit, but he's an improving and capable rider who is obviously a fit with the horse. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin won the Belmont in 2006 with Jazil, and he knows how to handle a horse. There is a lot of work left to do for this colt, but he is unquestionably the horse to beat in this race. Unfortunately, the public will think so, too, and the price isn't going to be great.
Zulu, John Velazquez, 3/1: This is the kind of horse we are very used to seeing this time of year - a Todd Pletcher trainee with lots of potential but questions galore as well. It's not whether he can win - he is unbeaten in two races. Breeding isn't an issue, either - he's a son of the great Preakness winner Bernardini, with greats like A.P. Indy, Seattle Slew and Summer Squall in his blood. The biggest problem is that he is making his stakes debut, he has never run further than seven furlongs, his wins have been very competent but not particularly fast, and he has run against a much lower level of competition than he will see here. I don't think I am hiding my skepticism very well. I'll admit it - I am always skeptical about Pletcher horses heading into the Derby - and that has served me well over the years.
Awesome Banner, Jose Caraballo, 7/2: Here's yet another unbeaten horse -- perfect in three starts. The Fountain of Youth may not be his fourth start, though trainer Stanley Gold entered both him and stablemate Fellowship and may still decide to aim for the Tampa Bay Derby on March 12 with this one instead. Like Zulu, he is a horse that has crushed his competition in sprints - a better level of sprints than Zulu - but needs to prove that he can stretch out and still shine. His breeding suggests it shouldn't be a problem. I hope he does enter if only because he and Zulu locking up early could lead to blistering early fractions, and I never hate seeing that - unless my horse gets burnt out by them.
Awesome Speed, Irad Ortiz Jr., 4/1: As the name suggests, this horse is a son of the great Awesome Again, the horse which is also the grandsire of Awesome Banner and Fellowship. It also goes pretty much without saying at this point that he is unbeaten - in three races in his case. His last win was at the start of January at Gulfstream, and it was a nice effort - his early speed was not actually awesome, but he recovered from early contact nicely, pressed the pace, and put the field away entering the stretch. Nice race. Nice horse. I just need to see a little more before I get too excited - especially because trainer Alan Goldberg isn't exactly among the elite of the sport. Ortiz takes over in the irons from Joel Rosario after the latter broke his wrist in a spill last week.
Fellowship, Jose Lezcano, 20/1: You can't complain about a lack of experience here. He has raced nine times already - almost unheard of in this area of extremely conservative young horse management. He has two wins to show for it and a decent third behind Mohaymen in the Holy Bull last time out. Not a real contender in this group.
Golden Ray, Miguel Vasquez, 30/1: Eight career starts. Three wins in totally meaningless races. Crushed in stakes races much weaker than this one. A win here would be a sign of the apocalypse.
Pick: Mohaymen to win - have to go with the proven class here. The price will be too low to mess with exotics in a field this small.
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