SOLDAT (War Front), who capitalized on a rail draw to go wire-to-wire in the February 26 Fountain of Youth S. (G2), has once again landed in the rail post as the 9-5 morning-line favorite for Sunday's $1 million Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park. This time, however, the Kiaran McLaughlin pupil will have to adapt to a classier pace rival in Hutcheson S. (G2) romper FLASHPOINT (Pomeroy), who promises to flash speed from the far outside post 8 in his two-turn debut. The prospect of a contested pace gladdens the heart of the late-running Holy Bull S. (G3) winner DIALED IN (Mineshaft), while the rebound-seeking TO HONOR AND SERVE (Bernardini) and the newly-blinkered STAY THIRSTY (Bernardini) add even more to the intriguing story line. Thus the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby should provide answers to some pressing Kentucky Derby (G1) questions.
Last season, Soldat made his name as a turf horse, breaking his maiden in the With Anticipation S. (G3) and finishing second in both the Pilgrim S. (G3) and Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G2). The dark bay thrived on the switch to dirt this winter at Gulfstream, where he has won both of his starts at this 1 1/8-mile distance. After a 10 3/4-length conquest of a January 21 allowance in the slop, Soldat dismissed any quibbles about his effectiveness on the fast main track when rolling by two lengths in the Fountain of Youth.
McLaughlin has reiterated that Soldat isn't a one-dimensional front runner, for the colt employed stalking tactics as a juvenile on the grass. With the presence of the speedy Flashpoint in the Florida Derby, Soldat plans to revert to a tracking position early for regular rider Alan Garcia.
The undefeated Flashpoint has yet to race beyond sprint distances, but has looked overpowering in his two starts so far. A 6 1/4-length winner in his January 15 debut at Aqueduct over six furlongs, the Rick Dutrow trainee dismissed a higher grade of competition in the February 26 Hutcheson at Gulfstream, drawing off by 7 1/4 lengths in a fast time of 1:22 for seven furlongs.
Flashpoint would have been a prohibitive favorite in Sunday's $150,000 Swale S. (G2), had he remained within the friendly confines of the sophomore sprint division. Instead, his connections are giving him an opportunity to stretch out here. If the gray outruns his sprint-oriented pedigree, he would catapult himself into the Kentucky Derby picture. Flashpoint, pegged at 6-1 on the morning line, will look to make it a perfect three-for-three with Cornelio Velasquez back in the irons.
Three of Soldat's beaten opponents from the Fountain of Youth are taking another crack at him in the Florida Derby, led by To Honor and Serve. The Bill Mott-trained colt was once at or near the top in many Kentucky Derby lists, following convincing scores in last fall's Nashua S. (G2) and Remsen S. (G2) at Aqueduct.
Returning from a three-month layoff in the Fountain of Youth, To Honor and Serve was expected to need that race to bolster his fitness, but he proved perhaps even shorter than envisioned. He was in a perfect position on the far turn, only to tire and fade in the stretch, beaten a total of 6 3/4 lengths. Since then, To Honor and Serve has posted four works at his Payson Park base, including a pair of bullets, and ought to move forward Sunday. Garrett Gomez picks up the mount on the well-bred colt, who rates as the 4-1 third choice and will break just to the outside of Soldat from post 2.
BOWMAN'S CAUSEWAY (Giant's Causeway) was a troubled fourth the Fountain of the Youth, forced to steady behind a stalling SHACKLEFORD (Forestry) just as he was making his move on the far turn, yet rallied well down the lane. Trainer Patrick Biancone then pitched Bowman's Causeway into a one-mile allowance on March 19, and the consistent colt ran his usual race for third behind the smart Todd Pletcher pair of Dance City (City Zip) and Cal Nation (Distorted Humor). Bowman's Causeway could appreciate stepping back up in trip in this spot. Shackleford, a well-beaten fifth in the Fountain of Youth, would need to improve considerably to turn the tables in the Florida Derby.
Dialed In has passed on two previous clashes with Soldat, for different reasons, and with varying results. Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito scratched him from that January 21 allowance because of the sloppy track. Dialed In reappeared nine days later in the January 30 Holy Bull at a one-turn mile, and scored a visually impressive last-to-first victory.
His timetable altered by the change of plan, Zito preferred to skip the Fountain of Youth and instead got a 1 1/8-mile allowance/optional claimer to fill on March 6. Making his two-turn debut versus older horses that day, Dialed In was not best suited by the slow early pace, and his four-year-old stablemate Equestrio (Elusive got the jump on him entering the stretch. Nevertheless, Dialed In was doing his best work late for second, and blew well ahead on the gallop-out. Regular rider Julien Leparoux will allow the confirmed closer, the 2-1 second choice, to settle into stride from post 7.
The Pletcher-trained Stay Thirsty, who has at times worked in company with his champion stablemate Uncle Mo (Indian Charlie) this winter, shipped to New York for his 2011 premiere in the March 5 Gotham S. (G3). Judging by his fine two-year-old form -- a runner-up effort in the Hopeful S. (G1) and a better-than-appears fifth to Uncle Mo in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) -- Stay Thirsty was dispatched as the 4-5 favorite in the Gotham, and duly outclassed the field by 3 1/4 lengths.
Despite the emphatic win, Stay Thirsty will add blinkers for the first time Sunday. Pletcher believes that the colt was "a little green" and "a little intimidated" in his most recent work in company (not with Uncle Mo), and the equipment change is designed to address that issue. Ramon Dominguez has the return call aboard the dark bay, who could show a touch more speed with the headgear from post 6, and is tabbed at 8-1.
Rounding out the eight-horse field is ARCH TRAVELER (Sky Mesa) from the James Jerkens barn. The bay brings a two-race winning streak into his stakes debut, having garnered an entry-level allowance at this track and distance on the Fountain of Youth undercard. The runner-up, Nacho Business (Rahy), didn't flatter the form when checking in eighth in last Saturday's Louisiana Derby (G2), implying that Arch Traveler must raise his game to factor at this level.