TO HONOR AND SERVE (Bernardini) was widely touted as the horse most likely to pose a danger to Uncle Mo (Indian Charlie) this spring, but his popularity took a considerable hit after fading badly to finish a distant third in the Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream Park February 26.
How is the Bill Mott-trained colt going to challenge the unbeaten Eclipse Award champion if he couldn't put up a stronger showing against less acclaimed three-year-olds?
"It is quite noticeable that a lot of people jumped off the bandwagon -- and that's their prerogative," Mott said.
"There's new horses coming in, and it's an exciting time of year because you've got horses showing up now that you wouldn't have thought of in December, and now all of the sudden they're jumping up and running good races and they're in the mix."
The perceived bandwagon-jumping prompted Gulfstream Park linemaker Chuck Streva to rate To Honor and Serve third in the morning line at 4-1 for Sunday's $1 million Florida Derby (G1), behind Fountain of Youth winner SOLDAT (War Front), the 9-5 morning-line favorite.
To Honor and Serve was no match for Soldat in the Fountain of Youth, but Mott has reason to hope that the colt will put up a bigger fight in the Florida Derby.
"I think he's taking his training very well in the last month and I think we should be ready to go. I think we're ready for a better effort than we were the first time," Mott said.
"That certainly doesn't guarantee a win, but I would think that conditioning-wise we'd be in much better shape than we were going into the first one."
To Honor and Serve, who captured the Nashua (G2) and Remsen (G2) at Aqueduct to complete his two-year-old campaign, was light on conditioning while making his three-year-old debut in the Fountain of Youth. Live Oak Plantation's colt was taken out of training following the Remsen last November to give him time to grow into his tall frame.
"If the Fountain of Youth was our main objective, if that's what we had in mind as the final race for this horse's career or something, we would've never taken him out of training," his Hall of Fame trainer said. "We would've kept him in training and probably have a prep race in him before the Fountain of Youth. But we wanted to give him a little time."
To Honor and Serve ran four times last year, winning three in a row after a finishing second in a troubled debut. His back-to-back Grade 2 victories convinced Mott that he had enough of a foundation to give him a lighter schedule on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
"This horse had a fair amount of seasoning last year, although it was only four races as a two-year-old," Mott said. "We were a dual stake winner and we did have the benefit of going a mile and a furlong in the Remsen S. So he's already done some things that we didn't have to do this year.
"We've got one race under our belt, and I think we're coming into this one on the weekend pretty well, and we hope that with the two races in us that will set us up pretty good for the first Saturday in May, if we're lucky enough to keep everything together until then."
Although the Florida Derby is a major prep for the Kentucky Derby, Mott isn't underestimating the importance of winning the Gulfstream's signature race.
"This is actually a very important race for us. It is a Grade 1 and it would be a very nice race to have on this horse's resume no matter how we ran in the Kentucky Derby. So it's an important race not only by virtue of the fact that it's a step to the Kentucky Derby, but it's also an important race in its own right," Mott said.
With regular rider John Velazquez committed to Uncle Mo in the Kentucky Derby, Mott thought it was important to change to a rider for the Florida Derby to become acquainted with To Honor and Serve.
"Garrett's been good on the big day on a number of occasions. I don't believe he's won a Kentucky Derby, but he's won Breeders' Cups and every other big race they've got," Mott said. "He has won a couple of $1 million races for me. I think you'd have to figure him into the top five riders in the country and his name came out."
Mott is anxious for To Honor and Serve to become more battle-tested in the Florida Derby, which attracted Holy Bull (G3) victor DIALED IN (Mineshaft), Hutcheson (G2) winner FLASHPOINT (Pomeroy) and Gotham (G3) winner STAY THIRSTY (Bernardini), as well as Soldat.
"He showed us that he could run last year," Mott said. "I don't think that those races were flukes, even though he won a couple of them fairly easy and was basically unchallenged.
"I think it was good for him to be challenged the other day. I think that's ideal. I think all horses need to find out that they can't just roll up to one and go by them easily every time they do it. And I think it was good that (Soldat) was in there and actually turned him back, gave him a little something to get tired about."