HALLANDALE, Fla. -- The mystery of the Florida Derby, and perhaps even the Kentucky Derby, swirls like a twister inside the mind of a strikingly handsome chestnut colt named Coronado's Quest.
The horse is so calm around the barn that nearly every afternoon, when his trainer sets out the evening feed, he is lying down. But before a race, once the jockey sits on his back, he sometimes stops, freezes and refuses to move -- until the jockey hops off, and then he won't let the jockey back on.
Tantrums follow -- bucking, twisting, burning precious energy. Six weeks ago, before the Hutcheson Stakes here at Gulfstream Park, his jockey chased him down the track half a furlong before the horse let him back aboard.
"I've had some tough ones, but not as tough as him," said Shug McGaughey, his trainer. "What makes him do it, I have no idea."
Stuart S. Janney III, who lives in Butler and owns Coronado's Quest, is baffled, too. Like horsemen on the backside, Janney defers to McGaughey, regarded as a master at crawling up between a horse's ears and figuring out what's percolating in there. But the mystery of this horse has left him frustrated.
It's a mystery that could affect the outcome of today's Florida Derby, which includes in its six-horse field the top three Kentucky Derby prospects in the East.
And since the Florida Derby, in its 46 renewals, has produced 108 horses that finished in the top three in the Kentucky Derby (including 18 winners), it's a mystery that could influence the spring classics, too.
Coronado's Quest might be the most talented 3-year-old in training. Last year, he won five of six races. This year, he has finished second in two starts.
He has accomplished this -- first or second every time but once -- despite pre-race antics that surely detract from his mental and physical readiness to race. That has impressed, for one, the Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day, who has observed him from other horses' backs.
"I've seen horses that conducted themselves in an unprofessional fashion, and then run accordingly," Day said. "But I've never seen a horse that conducts himself quite like him and still puts together a race like he does.
"You just think for sure he's not focused at all, that his mind is absolutely gone. But he puts together some bang-up races. It certainly leads you to wonder, if he went over there doing everything right, conserving his energy, what kind of a race he would run."
When Coronado's Quest freezes, he usually looks to the rear, prompting Janney and McGaughey to speculate that something hurts, or something has hurt him from behind. But no injury, past or present, has been revealed.
"I just think it's something in his head," McGaughey said. "It's probably in his pedigree a little bit."
That's what Gus Koch thinks, too. Koch is in charge of the breeding stock at Claiborne Farm, where Coronado's Quest was foaled and broken. His sire is Forty Niner, his dam Laughing Look.
"He's inherited his temperament from his mother," Koch said. "She's tough, really tough. She doesn't want to be fooled with. When the vet comes around, or the blacksmith, she has a very uneven disposition.
"I'm sure she's passed that on to her offspring. I might add that that's also part of what makes Coronado's Quest such a good racehorse. But maybe in his case she passed on a little too much."
McGaughey has tried numerous fixes: Walking the colt numerous times through the paddock, saddling him in the paddock on non-race days, taking him to the track first thing in the morning, taking him to the track later in the morning, giving him extra time to graze in the afternoon, adding equipment, subtracting equipment, stuffing cotton in his ears, giving him bottled water, administering Lasix.
"I'm open to anything," McGaughey said. "But basically, we always get back to doing the same thing we always do -- just doing things over and over until he gets more comfortable with them."
And finally, seven weeks before the Kentucky Derby, McGaughey said he believes Coronado's Quest is catching on.
"I would almost venture to say we're pretty darn close to being beyond it right now," McGaughey said. "He's had a really good three weeks since the Fountain of Youth. He's handled everything better than he has all winter."
Before the Fountain of Youth, McGaughey said, he concentrated so much on the horse's behavior that he neglected the conditioning. After Coronado's Quest challenged Lil's Lad late but couldn't pass him, McGaughey said his colt "just ran out of training."
Since then, he said, he has trained Coronado's Quest harder.
"I've been a little more aggressive with him," McGaughey said. "So I think we can probably be a little more aggressive in our racing style [today]. We've got to take it to him a little earlier."
"Him" is Lil's Lad, the 3-year-old star so far of Gulfstream. After winning three straight races, one by 16 1/2 lengths, he is the 4-5 morning-line favorite for the Florida Derby, and the consensus future-book favorite for the Kentucky Derby.