Stuart Janney III's Orb emerged as an ascending star in this year's crop of Kentucky Derby (G2) and Triple Crown prospects after winning the $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 23 by a half-length for trainer Shug McGaughey.
But Orb faces his biggest challenge yet in Saturday's $1 million Besilu Stables Florida Derby (G1) when he will meet nine other 3-year-olds including Trilogy Stable and Laurie Plesa's Itsmyluckyday and Starlight Stable and partners' Shanghai Bobby, the one-two finishers Jan. 26 in the $400,000 Holy Bull Stakes (G3).
Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez takes the return call on Orb in the 62nd edition of the historic Florida Derby at 1 1/8 miles. Orb drew post position 6 and was made the 3-to-1 third choice on the morning line. The Florida Derby will be televised live during a one-hour show from 6-7 p.m. EDT to be aired on NBC Sports Network. First race post is 12:30 p.m.
The Besilu Florida Derby will be one of seven stakes (six graded) run Saturday afternoon. Take Charge Indy, last year's Florida Derby winner, is expected to meet Travers (G1) winner Golden Ticket and Pants On Fire in the $100,000 Skip Away (G3). Davona Dale (G2) winner Live Lively will be favored in the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2), while two-time stakes winner Successful Song will be favored in the $150,000 Rampart (G2).
A Kentucky homebred by Malibu Moon, Orb has blossomed since shipping into Payson Park from New York for the winter as he posted his third straight victory in the Fountain of Youth following a 1 1/8 miles allowance victory over the track on Jan. 26.
“He has made great strides since he got down here, starting with his first work at Payson,” said McGaughey. “I came down here with the idea that he probably wouldn't be able to show his best with his style the way the Gulfstream track plays (favoring speed). My expectations were that he might win an 'a other than' allowance race and we'd get him back to New York and maybe get to run him in the Wood Memorial.
“He doesn't necessarily have to win Saturday to go to the (Kentucky) Derby, but he has to run the right kind of race. If he doesn't, we won't go. I want the horse to take me there.” As for how Saturday's race might develop he said, “The pace is out of my hands. We'll let him run his race. His style and pedigree say he will go the distance (Kentucky Derby at 1 ¼ miles).”
Itsmyluckyday and Shanghai Bobby finished one-two last out in the Holy Bull Stakes (G1) at 1 1/16 miles, separated by two lengths. Jockey Elvis Trujillo will be back aboard Itsmyluckyday for trainer Eddie Plesa, Jr. and Rosie Napravnik flies in from New Orleans as the regular rider of Shanghai Bobby for trainer Todd Pletcher.
Itsmyluckyday drew post 3 and was installed as the 2-to-1 favorite by longtime Gulfstream Park line-maker Chuck Streva while Shanghai Bobby breaks from the rail as the 5-to-2 second choice.
A son of Lawyer Ron purchased for $110,000 at the OBS March 2-year-old sales, Itsmyluckyday had plenty of experience as a 2-year-old winning three of seven starts, including the Sapling Stakes (G3) sprinting at Monmouth Park and the Foolish Pleasure Stakes at Calder around two turns
After a fourth-place effort on turf in the Dania Beach Stakes here in mid-December, Itsmyluckyday romped home a 6 ¾ lengths winner of the one-mile Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year's Day before taking his game to another level rallying to run by previously undefeated, 2012 Eclipse champion 2-year-old favorite Shanghai Bobby in the Holy Bull.
Plesa and Pletcher each decided to pass the Fountain of Youth and train up to the Florida Derby. “If I had drawn a map for his training since the Holy Bull it couldn't have gone any better than it has,” said Plesa as Itsmyluckyday has posted an impressive series of workouts each Saturday at Calder since then. “I wouldn't change a thing about what we planned for him.”
Shanghai Bobby sealed his Eclipse title winning the $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) by a hard-fought head on Nov. 3 at Santa Anita after a rather easy score in the Champagne Stakes (G1) at Belmont Park. A substantial interest in the son of Starlight's 2002 Florida Derby winner Harlan's Holiday was sold Breeders' Cup week to the international Coolmore team of Mrs. John Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith.
Shanghai Bobby was sent out the even-money favorite in the Holy Bull in his first start since the Breeders' Cup, setting the pace to the upper stretch until Itsmyluckyday came alongside and drew away, leaving some with questions about Shanghai Bobby's possible distance limitations.
Managing Starlight partner Jack Wolf said Tuesday, “He got beat fair and square, but I hope it will move him forward. I know there is a question if he can get the distance, but with his heart and determination my expectations are as high as ever.”
A solid pace appears virtually assured for those concerned about it with the entry of Bruce Chandler. Robert McKee and James Glavin's Merit Man with jockey Kent Desormeaux in the saddle for trainer Bob Hess, Jr. as the son of With Distinction makes his first start around two turns after establishing his reputation sprinting.
Merit Man won his first two starts at Del Mar and Santa Anita last year and was beaten a nose as the 1-to-2 favorite in the $500,000 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint at Santa Anita on Nov. 2 before shipping east to train at Gulfstream over the winter.
In two starts at Gulfstream he won the six-furlong Spectacular Bid Stakes on New Year's Day and finished a disappointing fourth in the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes (G2) on Feb. 2 with Hess suggesting after the race that he likely made a mistake attempting to see if the colt could rate. He also said he believed that a young horse can often run his best race in the first attempt at two turns.
Magic City Thoroughbreds' Frac Daddy came to Gulfstream with a big reputation for trainer Ken McPeek after a strong runner-up effort behind Uncaptured in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) at Churchill Downs in late November. However, the son of Scat Daddy disappointed when finishing a distant sixth in the Holy Bull, although he was later determined to have grabbed a quarter rather badly and to have been suffering from a throat ulcer at the time.
Jockey Corey Lanerie will be aboard Frac Daddy for the first time and McPeek continues to believe in the horse. “I really haven't changed my mind that he could be one of the best young horses I've ever had. He's over his problems and has trained great since then. I'm looking forward to this race.”
Another slightly under the radar contender will be Ronald Kirk, Michael Riordan, John Bates, Anthony Shaw and Aaron Sones' Are You Kidding Me with jockey Jose Lezcano getting the call for Hall of Fame trainer Roger Attfield.
A son of freshman sire Run Away and Hide, Are You Kidding Me was a good 2-year-old in Canada last year, finishing second in the Summer Stakes (G2) on turf and later a close-up fifth, beaten only 2 ¾ lengths, in the Breeders' Futurity (G2) on Polytrack at Keenland in October. Attfield had him entered to return in the seven-furlong Swale Stakes (G2) here on Mar. 2, but scratched after he drew the outside post 13.
Attfield found a spot for him a week later in a 1 1/16 miles turf race at Tampa Bay Downs on Mar. 9 and he ran a big race to finish second by a nose behind 2012 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) runner-up Noble Tune, also making his 3-year-old debut. Are You Kidding Me will be racing on dirt for the first time in the Florida Derby.
“He got what he needed from the Tampa race to move him forward,” said Attfield. “We've always thought he had the ability to be a possible Derby-quality horse. He's trained very well on dirt here at Payson (Park), but whether they do well on it in a race you just don't know until you try them.”
Trainer Dale Romans, coming off a career year as Eclipse champion trainer in 2012, will send out a pair of longshots in the Florida Derby with Carolyn Vogel's Pick of the Litter to be ridden by Jesus Castanon and Donegal Racing's maiden Pontiff and Alan Garcia in the saddle.
Pick of the Litter is a son of Kitten's Joy, the Romans' trained 2004 Eclipse champion turf runner and now highly-successful sire. Pick of the Litter has only run twice, finishing ninth in a turf race here on Feb. 2 and winning an 'off the turf' maiden special by 7 ½ lengths going 1 1/8 miles on Feb. 27.
“He trained like one of my best 2-year-olds last year,” said Romans of Pick of the Litter. “He finally looks like he's put it all together. Even though he's by Kitten's Joy, I tried him on the turf and it seems he likes the dirt better. He's come back and worked well and he's going to be tough to handle in there.”
Pontiff is a regally bred son of Giant's Causeway out of Preach and also has run only twice during the Gulfstream meet, finishing ninth in his debut on Jan. 5 after stumbling at the start and finishing second by a neck in a maiden special on Feb. 16.
“I tried him on the turf and it seems he likes the dirt better. He's come back and worked well and he's going to be tough to handle in there.”
Completing the field are Stipa Racing's Narvaez to be ridden by Paco Lopez for trainer Agustin Bezara and Charles Fipke's Indy Illusion with Rajiv Maragh named to ride for trainer Barclay Tagg. Bezara saddled Walter Stipa's Reveron to finish second by a length behind Take Charge Indy in the Florida Derby last year with favorite Union Rags third.
The Florida Derby winner will earn 100 points on the new system to determine the maximum field of 20 allowed to start in the 'Run for the Roses.' Orb earned 50 points for his Fountain of Youth victory, virtually assuring him of a berth with even a minor award Saturday.
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