Florida Derby different breed

Position in schedule creates field carrying widely varying hopes

Horse Racing


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. -- When the $1 million, Grade I Florida Derby is run this afternoon, Barbaro will be the horse viewed as the favorite. But Flashy Bull, Sharp Humor, Sunriver or one of the other less-noticed entries could have something to say about the result.

"I feel bad for [trainer] Michael Matz and Barbaro," said Flashy Bull's assistant trainer, Neil McLaughlin, who is also the brother of head trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. "Coming out of the 10 hole on this track is tough because of the shorter distance to the first turn. They're going to have some maneuvering to do."

The Florida Derby is celebrating its 50th anniversary today with an unusual field. The race usually draws the cream of 3-year-olds for its 1 1/8 -mile Kentucky Derby trial, but this year, because of a date change, the race is positioned five weeks from the Run for the Roses in Louisville.

That makes it tough for trainers, most of whom believe five weeks is too long a gap between races. If they run here, they have two choices, neither of which appeals to a traditionalist. They can sit for five weeks until the Triple Crown race or they can try to squeeze in another trial in two weeks.

If they do the first, they fear their horses will be out of condition and dull, but, if they do the latter, there is the chance they could be asking too much in the 1 1/4 -mile Derby.

So besides Barbaro, who has been pointed to this race because of a training schedule that has been designed for five- and six-week periods between races, the field is an eclectic mix. Some of the horses are here because their schedules were thrown out of whack by injuries, some are here because it's simply an opportunity to take a shot at $1 million, and some others are here because they were late nominees to the Triple Crown races.

For the third straight year, 14 owners have written checks for $6,000 to secure late nominations to the list of 426 early nominees for the Triple Crown races.

Two of those 14 late additions, High Blues and Sam's Ace, will be in the field today.

"We're here to have fun," High Blues trainer David Paulus said. "To have a good time. There will only be one winner and the rest will be forgotten. But in a million-dollar race, even if he runs a good fourth, we'd have the money to make it into the Kentucky Derby."

So Barbaro, undefeated in four starts, but lightly raced on dirt - having just his victory in the Holy Bull Stakes in the mud to show his ability on the surface - is the favorite, despite drawing the undesired No. 10 starting gate.

And Matz, his trainer, has no problem with the post position or with those who wonder if Barbaro can handle a fast, dry track and the light schedule of races.

"Isn't it human nature to look at the negatives instead of pointing out that he has won on four different racetracks in vastly different conditions?" Matz said.

Sharp Humor, who won the Grade II Swale Stakes March 4, is expected to bring the speed to the race. His owner, Ed Edelberg, 75, is doing everything he can to encourage a strong effort.

"From the day Sharp Humor was born, I thought we'd be here and beyond," Edelberg said. "I bought a music box that plays `My Old Kentucky Home' and I go to the barn and play it for him once a week."


Today's race

What: Florida Derby, Grade I Kentucky Derby prep race

Where: Gulfstream Park, Hallandale Beach, Fla.

Post time: 5:42 p.m.

TV: USA (5 p.m.)

Distance: 1 1/8 miles

Purse: $1 million

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