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Friday, March 27, 2009

The last Saturday in March

By Paul Moran
Special to ESPN.com

Two of the last three winners of the Kentucky Derby have come out of the Florida Derby. Once upon a time not so long ago, winning the Derby off a five-week respite was considered unlikely, perhaps impossible. Not so, trainer Michael Matz said before Barbaro did exactly that in 2006. A year ago, the time between races was not an issue with Big Brown, who had others but won on the first Saturday of May with absolute authority.

Whatever the fate of its winner in May, Saturday's Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park will most certainly have a meaningful impact on the shape and form of the Kentucky Derby field. Two of the season's most interesting and obviously talented 3-year-olds — a group summarized by trainer Todd Pletcher as: pretty good, pretty deep and, by the numbers, pretty fast — will be in the cast at Hallandale Beach.

It may be part of the dynamic in a year when very good 3-year-old have emerged on both coasts, Louisiana, Arkansas and Dubai but prep races this early in the season seldom come with the sort of drama that is brewing in Florida. The Pletcher-trained Dunkirk, a $3.7-million yearling who was unraced at age 2 and now grown into an imposing roan, has run only twice and may very well be the best of his age in training, but he is not guaranteed a place in the Kentucky Derby field unless he wins the Derby run on the last Saturday of March.

Dunkirk has impressed Pletcher from the outset. "He got my attention the first time he breezed. We were thinking he was something special back in November," he said, dismissing the suggestion that a move from obviously overmatched allowance company to a Grade 1 may be an unreasonable demand. "We're asking the appropriate question," he said.

The answer must be yes. Dunkirk needs money in the form of graded stakes earnings, very important in an age when every Derby field numbers 20 and those on the bubble are often excluded at entry time. Given the guarantee of a starting position to the winner of the Derby Challenge run in England last week, only 19 spots remain in the Churchill barrier. This is one of the few situations in which Dunkirk's' connections  Magnier, Tabor and Smith, also known as Coolmore, also known as the folks who brought you The Green Money, the all-time slowest $16-million career maiden  could find themselves excluded for lack of money. "A win obviously puts us in," Pletcher said. "Second and he's on the bubble."

In consideration of Dunkirk's position and the crucial nature of the race, Pletcher said he is considering a maiden named Europe as the designated rabbit. Quality Road, Pletcher said, is not a horse he would enjoy seeing loose on the lead while setting a comfortable pace.

While Dunkirk has won his two races from behind the pace, the first while overcoming a poor start, traffic delays and lost ground, Quality Road has been right there in each of his three starts, most recently in a very impressive punishment of those he faced in the Fountain of Youth Stakes last month.

Trainer Jimmy Jerkens understands why Pletcher would enter a rabbit. He'd do the same thing himself under the circumstances. But Quality Road, he said, has given no indication that he is in need of the lead. Long morning gallops, Jerkens said, have shown that Quality Road is capable of relaxing behind horses. "He's fast, but I believe he's very ratable."

Pletcher contends that speed figures do not accurately reflect the strength of Dunkirk's victories. Quality Road's Fountain of Youth and I Want Revenge's Gotham are the strongest races run by any of these good, deep and fast 3-year-olds to this point.

At a point where this process is as contentious and interesting as any in recent years, a victory by either colt on Saturday will make this thick stew of 3-year-olds even more robust than it is now. Still, there will still be no clear favorite in the chase toward Kentucky. The Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass and Illinois Derby still to come.

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at paulmoran47@hotmail.com.

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