HALLANDALE, Fla. -- Vicar, the striking black colt bettors refuse to embrace, clawed his way toward the Kentucky Derby yesterday with a thrilling, tenacious victory in the $750,000 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.
Vicar prevailed by a nose as three horses passed under the wire in a blur, separated by half the length of one horse's body. But it perhaps was Wondertross, the runner-up who spent his 2-year-old season in Maryland, who made the lasting impression.
Stuck behind horses down the backstretch and then again as they turned for home, Wondertross jerked to the outside for clear sailing with less than a quarter-mile to run. With his jockey, Jerry Bailey, riding as if this were the Kentucky Derby, Wondertross quickly regained momentum and charged for the wire.
Although he fell inches short of overtaking Vicar, Bailey boasted afterward that no horse in the field would ever defeat Wondertross again.
They'll get their chance April 10 in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. That's where the top three finishers in the Florida Derby are headed. From there, it will be on to Louisville and the 125th Kentucky Derby the first Saturday in May.
Vicar may get the respect in Kentucky he failed to muster in Florida. Passed off at 9-2 in the Fountain of Youth Stakes three weeks ago and again yesterday in the Florida Derby, Vicar won the twin Grade I stakes with grit and speed, a combination his trainer Carl Nafzger and jockey Shane Sellers -- if not the bettors -- love.
"He's a fighter with tactical speed," Sellers said. "And today he showed us that he's versatile. That makes me like him that much more."
Added Nafzger, who trained Unbridled nine years ago to victories in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby: "There was only one question I had not answered with this colt. Would he relax two or three lengths off the lead and then punch when we needed him? He answered that today."
Despite being the only winner of a Grade I stakes in the 10-horse field (the filly Three Ring was scratched as expected), Vicar went to the post tied with Wondertross, who has never won a stakes of any kind, as the bettors' tepid second choice.
The D. Wayne Lukas-trained Cat Thief, who couldn't beat Vicar in the Fountain of Youth, was the surprising, 9-5 favorite.
"I was stunned in the jocks' room," Sellers said. "I looked up and he was 7-to-1. I thought I had the wrong number."
Vicar dipped to 9-2 by post time. He paid $11.20 to win and headed a $72.60 exacta with Wondertross. The trifecta returned $165, with Cat Thief third.
Following the top three under the wire were Certain, First American, Adonis, Aly's Alley, Casanova Star, Grits'n Hard Toast and Valid Trefaire.
Vicar's winning time for the 1 1/8 miles was 1 minute 50 4/5 seconds, the slowest Florida Derby on a fast track since Unbridled's 1: 52 in 1990.
A crowd of 29,558, the largest for a Florida Derby in seven years, filled this South Florida track to bet horses, but also to hear Art Garfunkel, who performed a concert behind the grandstand.
After Garfunkel mellowed out the crowd, the 10 3-year-olds burst from the starting gate in an eruption of noise, dirt and churning feet.
Four horses contested the lead around the first turn all the way down the backstretch -- Cat Thief, Certain, Valid Trefaire and Vicar. Wondertross raced at their heels, searching for running room.
Valid Trefaire, who had never raced farther than seven furlongs, began faltering around the far turn. Certain and Vicar surged alongside Cat Thief, so that the three of them, tightly bunched, turned for home side-by-side. Down the long homestretch, Vicar outbattled Certain, and then Cat Thief. But he barely held off the charging Wondertross.
"You can't ask for anything better than this," said Nick Zito, the trainer of Wondertross. "Obviously, the most important thing is we're going forward. I like what Bailey said. He said after the wire [Wondertross] dug in again."
Zito inherited Wondertross three months ago after the colt's owner, George Steinbrenner, sold part of him to William Condren, a long-time client of Zito.
They took Wondertross, a full brother to Concerto, from the trainer John J. Tammaro III, based at Laurel Park, and transferred him to Zito.
Now Wondertross may be Zito's best hope to win a third Kentucky Derby. But the developing colt, who has raced only six times, must contend with the Nafzger-trained Vicar again in the Blue Grass Stakes and probably at least one horse from Bob Baffert's powerful stable in California.
"People say the West Coast horses are better or the East Coast horses are better," Nafzger said.
"But you don't know until you run them against each other, until they go eyeball-to-eyeball. And it might take two or three races to shake that out.
"That's why we keep running these races."
On the Florida Derby undercard at Gulfstream Park, Yes It's True and Texas Glitter engaged in a seven-furlong battle in the Grade III, $100,000 Swale Stakes before Yes It's True was able to prevail by a head in 1 minute 22 1/5 seconds.
Ridden by Jerry Bailey and trained by D. Wayne Lukas, Yes It's True paid $9.40 as the 7-2 second choice. Texas Glitter was the 2-5 favorite. Lucky Roberto finished third, 5 1/2 lengths back.
Pub Date: 3/14/99