HALLANDALE, Fla. -- In baseball, it's batting practice. In football and basketball, it's the scrimmage. In horse racing, it's the prep race.
Don't confuse the preparation with the main event.
On the first major weekend of the year on the road to the Kentucky Derby, 13 horses will compete today in the $1 million Florida Derby here at Gulfstream Park. Nine horses will square off tomorrow in the $750,000 Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans.
Those races offer money and prestige for a horse early in his 3-year-old season. But they mainly provide a stepping stone for leading candidates for the spring classics (Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont stakes).
As trainers attempt to hone their charges for a peak performance in the Kentucky Derby, they use prep races for training, teaching and developing fitness. They sacrifice victory now for greater glory later.
"The purpose of this thing isn't to win all the prep races," said John Ward Jr., trainer of Monarchos in the Florida Derby and Hero's Tribute in the Louisiana Derby. "The purpose is to have your horse at his best the first Saturday in May."
No better evidence exists than the Florida Derby. Coming up on the calendar less than two months before the Kentucky Derby, the Grade I stakes in South Florida showcases many of the most promising young colts in America.
Yet none of the last three Florida Derby winners (Cape Town in 1998, Vicar in 1999 and Hal's Hope in 2000) has won another race. They're a combined 0-for-23. (Only Hal's Hope remains in training.)
A horse usually must deliver a peak performance to win a top stakes. And peak performances are often difficult to replicate.
Ward, a trainer for three decades, said he believes Songandaprayer may be a horse already past his peak. A son of Unbridled's Song, winner of the 1996 Florida Derby, Songandaprayer won the Grade I Fountain of Youth Stakes here three weeks ago and is 5-1 in the morning line for the Florida Derby.
He won the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth after cruising on an uncontested lead. The idea before that race, said his trainer, John Dowd, was to allow the speedy Songandaprayer to settle behind horses, conserve energy and then rally in the stretch. But when no one challenged for the lead, Songandaprayer's jockey, Edgar Prado snatched it and, in bettors' parlance, stole the race.
Since Songandaprayer learned nothing about coming from off the pace, an important quality as the races get longer (the Florida Derby is 1 1/8 miles), Dowd said he hopes his colt grasps that lesson today.
In fact, he said, he'd sacrifice the winner's purse of $600,000 for Songandaprayer's charging late with conserved energy, as long as that lesson paid dividends in more prestigious races at longer distances (the Kentucky Derby is 1 1/4 miles).
Other trainers with 3-year-olds racing this weekend share that view.
Ward said he'd be happy if Monarchos, morning-line favorite in the Florida Derby, finished with a flourish, even if he didn't catch the leaders. He said he'd be happy if Hero's Tribute, 3-1 in the Louisiana Derby, tempered his blazing speed and showed patience in his first race around two turns.
The trainers of Florida Derby entrants Invisible Ink and You Know Who (Todd Pletcher), Monarchos (Ward), Dream Run (Paul McGee) and It's So Simple (Nick Zito) want to see their horses elevate their game in their first stakes competition. John Scanlan, trainer of Talk Is Money, just wants to see his horse get out of the gate.
Scanlan, based at Laurel Park but temporarily training Talk Is Money at Hialeah, watched in horror as the $1.8 million colt stood flat-footed during the break of the Fountain of Youth. Talk Is Money finished 10th of 11, loping around in a wasted effort.
For the Florida Derby, Scanlan has added blinkers, changed jockeys (Michael McCarthy replaced Maryland's Mario Verge) and schooled Talk Is Money out of the gate.
NOTES: Hook And Ladder, a lightly raced 4-year-old trained by John Kimmel, captured the Grade II, $200,000 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Sprint yesterday at Gulfstream Park. Trippi finished second and Rollin With Nolan was third.
The Louisiana Derby will be televised tomorrow on ESPN2 during a one-hour broadcast beginning at 4:30 p.m. Post time is 5:12 p.m. EST. (The broadcast will include a taped replay of today's Florida Derby.)
Post positions were drawn yesterday for the Grade II stakes at 1 1/16 miles at the Fair Grounds. Here's the field in post position order (trainer, jockey, odds in parentheses):
Gracie's Dancer (Andrew Leggio Jr., Alex Jimenez, 10-1), Hero's Tribute (John Ward Jr., Jorge Chavez, 3-1), Clutch Player (Dallas Stewart, Calvin Borel, 20-1), Sam Lord's Castle (Josie Carroll, Robby Albarado, 10-1), Dollar Bill (Dallas Stewart, Pat Day, 9-5), Unreal Party (Michael Pino, Ramon Dominguez, 30-1), Millennium Wind (David Hofmans, Chris McCarron, 5-2), Fifty Stars (Steve Asmussen, Donnie Meche, 10-1) and True Concern (Tom Amoss, Eddie Martin Jr., 30-1).