HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Trainer Nick Zito, who had not won the Florida Derby in 16 attempts, finished one-two yesterday when High Fly captured the $1 million race at Gulfstream Park, and Noble Causeway finished second.
Zito said both horses probably won't race again until the Kentucky Derby on May 7 at Churchill Downs. The last horse to win the Kentucky Derby off a five-week layoff was Needles in 1956.
High Fly won for the fifth time in six tries and established himself as one of the leading 3-year-olds trying to follow in the footsteps of Funny Cide and Smarty Jones. They became stars the past two years, respectively, by winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
High Fly, a son of Atticus, who was a turf runner and has been primarily a turf sire, has won two 1 1/8 -mile dirt races in a row. Jerry Bailey, his jockey, said that even he had questioned High Fly's ability to run that far successfully against top horses.
As for handling the 1 1/4 miles of the Kentucky Derby, Bailey said you never know whether a horse can do that until he tries. But, Bailey said he'd rather be wondering on a horse who keeps winning rather than one who keeps finishing strongly but fails to win.
"He's got a lot of 1's by his name," Bailey said of High Fly. "The only time he got beat wasn't his fault."
High Fly finished third in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park two months ago after a wide trip under jockey Eddie Castro. Bailey replaced Castro after that race, and High Fly was transferred from trainer Bill White to Zito.
Zito has won the Kentucky Derby twice with horses who raced in the Florida Derby: Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in 1994. They finished second and fourth, respectively, in the Florida Derby.
But a victory in the Florida Derby had eluded Zito - until yesterday. His two horses dominated a nine-horse field that was one of the weakest in recent years in this significant Kentucky Derby prep.
"These horses both ran really huge," Zito said. "They both showed a lot of courage. All the way down the lane I was yelling, `Show me your heart! Show me your heart!' And they did. It was very gratifying to watch them today."
High Fly came down with a slight fever one week ago and missed training. This was Noble Causeway's first attempt in a stakes race.
Bailey guided High Fly on a picture-perfect trip. B.B. Best zipped into the lead, and High Fly quickly settled in second at his right hip. Noble Causeway and his jockey, Edgar Prado, cruised in fifth, then sixth, biding their time.
High Fly launched his bid around the far turn and secured the lead with an eighth of a mile to run. Prado swung Noble Causeway wide around the turn and charged down the stretch. Both horses finished powerfully and continued galloping past the finish.
High Fly, the 6-5 favorite, crossed the wire 1 1/2 lengths ahead of Noble Causeway (3-1), who finished two lengths ahead of B.B. Best (7-1). Completing the order of finish were Park Avenue Ball (26-1) under Maryland jockey Ramon Dominguez; Mighty Mecke (14-1); Vicarage (7-1); maiden Papi Chullo (9-1); Evil Minister (90-1) and Wallstreet Scandal (22-1).
High Fly paid $4.40 to win. The exacta returned $16.80, the trifecta $65 and the superfecta $475.20. High Fly completed the 1 1/8 miles in 1 minute, 49.43 seconds.
High Fly is owned by Charlotte Weber, a longtime horse owner and heir to the Campbell's Soup fortune.
A minimal crowd of 9,905 attended on a cool, cloudy day at Gulfstream, which is a construction zone. Magna Entertainment Corp. is rebuilding the track and operating this meet under tents, which has led to dramatic drops in attendance and handle.
NOTES: Trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez teamed to win three of the four stakes on the Florida Derby undercard: Grade II, $150,000 Pan American Handicap with Navesink River ($6 to win); Grade II, $150,000 Orchid Handicap with Honey Ryder ($6.60 to win), and $100,000 Artax Handicap with Value Plus ($8.80 to win). Eurosilver ($10 to win), trained by Carl Nafzger and ridden by Javier Castellano, won the Grade III, $100,000 Skip Away Handicap.