HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Papi Chullo nestles his pretty head against the chest of his owner, Greg Norman. The colt closes his eyes as if to doze off. Norman smiles.
A resident of California, Norman, 45 - not the famous golfer - bought his first thoroughbred 10 years ago. Papi Chullo is his 15th or 16th - he's not sure which - and make no mistake: The silver-gray, docile colt is the star of Norman's stable.
If Papi Chullo does something today that he's never done before, then he would become the star of the 2005 Florida Derby and a legitimate contender for the Kentucky Derby. That something is win.
Papi Chullo is a maiden, racing's term for a horse who hasn't won. He hasn't had all that many chances - only four - and twice he has finished second. But still, a maiden has never won the Florida Derby, a key race for budding 3-year-olds first contested in 1952. That doesn't deter Norman.
"We are attempting to make history," Norman said. "I believe this horse has the talent to make history. We do not fear any of the entrants in the Florida Derby. We believe Papi Chullo is the horse to beat."
If Papi Chullo were to break his maiden in the Florida Derby, a $1 million race at Gulfstream Park in South Florida, then it would rank merely as a mild upset.
Despite his winless record, he is 8-1 in the morning line. Only three horses in the nine-horse field boast lower odds: High Fly and Noble Causeway, the Nick Zito-trained pair, at 8-5 and 3-1, respectively, and Vicarage, the Louisiana Derby runner-up, at 6-1.
The field is not vintage Florida Derby, a Grade I stakes whose graduates have won 50 Triple Crown races. Injuries derailed a couple of contenders, and the race's new date contributed to the lackluster turnout.
The Florida Derby has been traditionally held in mid-March, giving horses time for another Kentucky Derby tuneup. This year, Gulfstream Park revamped its stakes schedule, and the Florida Derby fell on the first Saturday in April, five weeks before the Kentucky Derby.
Horses with that long a break between their last race and the Churchill Downs classic have not fared well. Trainers who might have circled the Florida Derby as one of their spring goals chose other paths and other races.
Consequently, the Florida Derby lacks such potential 3-year-old stars as Afleet Alex, Consolidator, Going Wild, High Limit and Sun King.
But it attracted Papi Chullo, who might be third- or four-choice in the betting. Norman paid $135,000 for the Florida-bred son of Comeonmom, an undistinguished sire.
Training Papi Chullo is the unknown Salvador Gonzalez, 48. After a quarter-century as a groom, Gonzalez couldn't believe his luck when Norman offered him the job of private trainer in December 2003.
"I liked the way he handled horses," Norman said. "His entire family works with horses. I really liked his worth ethic. I wanted a private trainer for my thoroughbred enterprise."
Norman, who tried a variety of trainers before settling on Gonzalez, makes the big decisions and Gonzalez takes care of the horses. A native of Mexico, Gonzalez understands English but doesn't speak it well. He says he appreciates the chance Norman has given him.
Norman owns a business that oversees all aspects - from conducting demographic studies to hiring architects - of building schools in California. He started going to the racetrack as a boy with his father, fell in love with it and vowed that if he could ever afford to buy racehorses, then he would.
He currently owns nine, and they're based in California. Papi Chullo finished fourth in his first start Dec. 18 at Golden Gate Fields, then finished second Jan. 15 at Santa Anita Park.
After finishing second again, a length behind Going Wild in the 1 1/8 -mile Sham Stakes on Feb. 5 at Santa Anita, Norman brought Papi Chullo to South Florida so he could run in more 1 1/8 -mile races.
Despite foot problems that perhaps compromised his performance, Papi Chullo finished fourth March 5 in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream. That sets him up for the Florida Derby's 1 1/8 miles and continues his preparation for the 1 1/4 -mile Kentucky Derby. Norman said he plans on running the colt in the Kentucky Derby whether or not he wins beforehand.
"We believe a mile and a quarter is really what this horse wants," said Norman, who pampers Papi Chullo with massages, acupuncture and other soothing therapies. "We believe he's one of the 20 top 3-year-olds in the country."