Saturday, January 2, 2010

South Florida is fertile land for Derby prospects

Marty McGee,
Daily Racing Form

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - South Florida has been a winter haven for Kentucky Derby hopefuls for decades. This is not some nostalgic bent. Three of the last four Derby winners, and four of the last seven, have made Florida their winter home, so it's little wonder that racing fans are already asking about which Florida 3-year-olds have a legitimate chance of making it to the 136th Derby on May 1.

The upset winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Vale of York, will be pointed to the Derby by training in Dubai, while the likely 2-year-old champion Lookin at Lucky is based in California. Beyond them, however, there are prospects aplenty who will make appearances at Gulfstream Park, where the 80-day meet starts Sunday. Noble's Promise, Buddy's Saint, Aikenite, Discreetly Mine, and Jackson Bend are just a few of the horses sure to be heard from as the Derby trail unfolds.

The Gulfstream route to the Derby underwent a slight reconfiguration last fall when it was announced that the track's signature race, the Grade 1 Florida Derby, has been moved back a week from its date of the last five years. The $750,000 race will be run March 20, six weeks before the Kentucky Derby, rather than five weeks out. Traditionally, the Florida Derby had been run seven weeks before the Kentucky Derby, but in 2005 it was moved to five weeks out. The two main stepping-stones to the Florida Derby are the Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 23 and the Fountain of Youth on Feb. 20.

The date change for the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby was made by Ken Dunn, the new Gulfstream president, partly in reaction to the Louisiana Derby having been moved to March 27, the same day the Florida Derby would have been run. The decision has not been met with overwhelming approval from horsemen.

"I actually preferred the old date," said Todd Pletcher, who has at least a half-dozen Derby prospects in training at the Palm Meadows training center. "But every horse is an individual case, so it's hard to say what plans we might need to make at this point."

"It's probably more about your horse than the timing of the race," said Bruce Levine, who has the undefeated Buddy's Saint at Gulfstream. "I'll have to see how the horse comes out of the Fountain of Youth and go from there. Right now, I'd probably be more inclined to run back in the Wood Memorial [April 3 at Aqueduct]."

In contrast, Rick Dutrow, who swept the Florida and Kentucky Derbies two years ago with Big Brown, believes the new date could be ideal.

"I hope we're having to deal with this issue in March," said Dutrow, who has D' Funnybone, Homeboykris, and Launch N Relaunch as his top candidates. "But if I have a horse run a big race, six weeks is exactly what I prefer for bringing him back. I think the timing is perfect. I don't see how anybody can complain about it."

Meanwhile, Pletcher has easily the largest number of Derby hopefuls among Florida trainers this year. Some are more serious than others, such as Super Saver, Aikenite, Discreetly Mine, and Eskendereya. Others are less proven, such as Rule, Overcommunication, and Mission Impazible, while at least one more, Interactif, has done his best work on grass and would seem questionable on dirt.

Super Saver, perhaps his top prospect at this point, has yet to breeze since winning the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes by five lengths, but is doing well as he gears back up, said Pletcher.

Nick Zito, who assumed the training of Jackson Bend following a private sale last fall, has at least one other prospect in Latigo Shore, a romping maiden winner at Calder on Dec. 21. Zito, a perennial Derby consideration, has his top horses at Palm Meadows again this winter.

Other 3-year-olds on the south Florida radar include Winslow Homer and Westover Wildcat for Tony Dutrow; Overlap and Insightful for Barclay Tagg; Aspire and Callide Valley for Eddie Kenneally; and Guys Reward (Dale Romans), William's Kitten (Mike Maker), and Piscitelli (Greg Sacco).

One horse who could draw major interest, depending on how he progresses, is Lentenor, a full brother to Barbaro, winner of the 2006 Florida and Kentucky derbies. Lentenor has the same connections as his legendary brother: He was bred and is owned by Roy and Gretchen Jackson of the Lael Stables, and he is trained by Michael Matz.

Lentenor ran third in his career debut on the Keeneland Polytrack on Oct. 31, then second in an Aqueduct turf route four weeks later. He has been in steady training in recent weeks at Palm Meadows and is expected to race early in the meet versus maidens.

Of course, as the Gulfstream meet unfolds, there will be plenty of maiden and allowance races to reveal even more 3-year-olds with major promise.

"That's always the way it works here, as I understand it," said newly hired racing secretary Dan Bork.

Besides Barbaro and Big Brown, the other Florida-based 3-year-olds who went on to win the Kentucky Derby in recent years were Funny Cide (2003) and Street Sense (2007). Last year, no Florida horse was a factor in the Derby.

Besides the one-mile Holy Bull and 1 1/8-mile Fountain of Youth, other preps in the Florida Derby series include the Feb. 20 Hutcheson and March 20 Swale, both at seven furlongs. Two graded races at Tampa Bay Downs, the Sam F. Davis and Tampa Bay Derby, also have evolved into useful alternatives for south Florida trainers.

Major prospects for the 3-year-old filly classics also will train in south Florida this winter, including She Be Wild, Negligee, Sassy Image, Ailalea, and Awesome Maria. Same goes for some of the top 3-year-old turf horses, such as Tapitsfly, Lost Aptitude, and Interactif.

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