One of the last great preps for the Kentucky Derby is also one of the most legitimate. While so many prep races have failed to produce consistently formidable contenders this year, pitting mid-level horses against mild competition, at best, the Florida Derby will be a true test for five venerable foes. Soldat, To Honor and Serve, Stay Thirsty, Dialed In, and Flashpoint have come together for a no-holds-barred battle for top honors in the Grade I $1 million Florida Derby this Sunday at Gulfstream Park.
Talk about putting all of your eggs in one basket; while races like the $800,000 Sunland Derby and the $1 million Louisiana Derby were held without any real superstar presence, the big boys are lining up for the Florida Derby, cementing the race as the most prestigious launching point to the Kentucky Derby. Gulfstream has become a traditional spring getaway for promising 3-year-olds looking to find their way into the gates at Churchill Downs on the most glorious day in May, so much so that Gulfstream is almost guaranteed to produce at least one big name horse. With this cluster of good contenders diving into the ring over the same purse, one has to wonder why all the connections didn't search for calmer waters with comparable prize money. So instead of watching a few showboats sail away to victory over several tracks, we are going to be treated to an all-out duel in Florida before the roses have had the chance to bloom.
The winner and the third-place finisher of the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes, Soldat and To Honor and Serve, are set for a rematch at the site of their last clash. Soldat, who is going off as the 9-5 morning line favorite, was a noted 2-year-old turf horse before he romped in an off-the-turf allowance at Gulfstream. He went on to prove that performance was no fluke when he won the Fountain of Youth in his next time out, pulling away from a rubber-legged To Honor and Serve and the tenacious Gourmet Dinner by two lengths. In defense of his uncharacteristic performance in the FOY, To Honor and Serve was making his first start of the year and probably wasn't as primed for that race as he will be here. Before the FOY, To Honor and Serve had racked up a three-race win streak, bagging the Grade II Nashua and Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct.
These two will have a race on their hands with the addition of Gotham Stakes winner, Stay Thirsty, and Holy Bull winner Dialed In. Stay Thirsty has been living in the giant shadow of his stablemate, Uncle Mo, but broke out into his own spotlight with his first stakes win. Before taking the Gotham, he was runner-up in the Hopeful Stakes behind Boys at Tosconova and finished sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Owner Mike Repole bought Stay Thirsty with the idea he would mature into a promising 3-year-old, so it's no stretch of the imagination to think he still has room for improvement. Dialed In won the Grade III Holy Bull at this track after breaking his maiden first time out, and was catapulted into many handicappers' top ten Derby contender lists. The Mineshaft colt disappointed in his next outing, finishing second in an optional claimer against older horses; but butting heads with more experienced horses in only his third start may have been too much to ask for the colt at that point. Dialed In won't get much of a break in this spot, but his sheer talent and conditioning by Derby veteran Nick Zito might help him show his true colors Sunday. The bay colt already has enough earnings to make it into the Kentucky Derby, so he doesn't have to win this race to buy a ticket to Louisville.
Dialed In will have speed to run at in the Florida Derby thanks to the addition of fireball Flashpoint, the winner of the Grade II Hutcheson at Gulfstream. Nobody knows if Flashpoint can go two turns, but his connections have Derby fever and opted to test the rocky waters with the big boys instead of pointing him toward the Grade II 7-furlong Swale. Undefeated in only two starts, Flashpoint sat just off the pace under blistering fractions in the Hutcheson before drawing away from Travelin Man to win the race by 7 ¼-lengths. If Flashpoint can show another dimension in the Florida Derby and prove he can go the distance, he will be an interesting new shooter in the Kentucky Derby picture.
With so few great horses on this road to Louisville, the door is wide-open for anyone to step through and test their mettle against the early favorite, Uncle Mo. Mo's next start will come in the Grade I Wood Memorial next Saturday, and it already looks like it's shaping up to be an exhibition race, with so few willing to try the champ for the newly boosted $1 million dollar purse. The Florida Derby will tell us a lot about these second-tier horses, distance and class-wise; but as for whether or not they have what it takes to challenge the reigning champ, we'll have to wait five more weeks to see.
The Grade I Florida Derby will be broadcast live on HRTV. Post time is approximately 5:42pm ET.