Aided by a stronger pace than in his last start, the Fountain of the Youth S. (G2), and the absence of that race's dominating winner Eskendereya (Giant's Causeway), Robert LaPenta's deep-closing ICE BOX (Pulpit) took full advantage in a wide-open renewal of the $750,000 Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park on Saturday. Still trailing the field of 11 with three furlongs to go, jockey Jose Lezcano swung the 20-1 chance outside rivals turning for home and finished full of run down the center of the track to nip fellow longshot Pleasant Prince (Indy King) by a nose and stamp his ticket to the May 1 Kentucky Derby (G1). The final time for 1 1/8 miles on the fast track was 1:49.
The swift pace of the Florida Derby was made by Pulsion (Include), who was tracked closely by 9-5 favorite Rule (Roman Ruler), who was exiting consecutive wins in the Sam F. Davis S. (G3) and Delta Jackpot S. (G3). The two raced heads apart through splits of :23 1/5, :46 2/5 and 1:10 3/5. Pulsion had had enough of that at the top of the stretch, and Rule drew off to a two-length lead with a furlong to go. However, the early exertion left Rule with nothing to fend off the oncoming Ice Box and Pleasant Prince, who also raced near the back early and was duking it out with Ice Box for a third time during the Gulfstream meet. Pleasant Prince, who finished less than two lengths ahead of Ice Box in the Fountain of Youth, had a slight advantage late but it was Ice Box who eventually got by in the nick of time on the outside.
Ice Box paid $43.40. $20.40 and $9.60. Pleasant Prince, sent off as the second-longest shot at 29-1 returned $26.40 and $11.60 while capping the $509.60 exacta. Rule ran a terrific race considering he was on the pace the whole way, and easily held third by 4 1/2 lengths over the 10-1 Lentenor (Dynaformer) and returned $3.40 to show. The trifecta was worth $2,445.80 and the 8-4-7-2 superfecta paid $30,456.20.
Lentenor, the full brother to Kentucky Derby and Florida Derby winner Barbaro, was making his dirt debut here and led the parade of also-rans that included First Dude (Stephen Got Even), Pulsion, Game On Dude (Awesome Again), Soaring Empire (Empire Maker), Radiohead (GB) (Johannesburg), Miner's Reserve (Mineshaft) and Best Actor (Rock Hard Ten).
Unplaced in his first three starts last season behind the likes of Rule and the multiple Grade 1-placed Aikenite (Yes It's True), Ice Box found luck in his first two-turn attempt at the Meadowlands on October 30, taking a maiden event by a half-length. He was again successful in a nine-furlong allowance at Gulfstream on January 18 over Pleasant Prince by a half-length, but tired to fifth in the Fountain of Youth last out after making what appeared to be a solid five-wide bid turning for home. With this initial stakes triumph, the chestnut has now earned $506,534 from a line of 7-3-0-0.
"I have to take it one step at a time with this horse and be thankful that he won this race," trainer Nick Zito said. "That's the way we're gonna approach it. You can think about running him back in three weeks and the another three weeks (Kentucky Derby), but we'll just have to figure that out. There is a possibility that we run a race before (the Derby), but this race obviously was a tough race. He's had three tough races in a row, so I've got to see what I'm going to do with him.
"We'll take him to Churchill, sometime after April 1 depending on how he is doing."
Bred in Kentucky by Denlea Park, Ice Box was a $125,000 yearling at the 2008 Keeneland September sale. Produced from the Grade 3 turf marathoner Spice Island (Tabasco Cat), who has also reared an unnamed two-year-old filly by Vindication and an unnamed yearling colt by Arch, Ice Box counts as a third dam Belle de Jour (Speak John), the dam of 1985 Kentucky Derby (G1) winner and Horse of the Year Spend a Buck (Buckaroo) and the granddam of Irish One Thousand Guineas (Ire-G1) heroine Hula Angel (Woodman).