They've been able to avoid each other all winter while racking up wins at Gulfstream, and are conveniently stabled in different areas of South Florida, but the inevitable crossing of paths between Itsmyluckyday and Orb finally arrives Saturday as the two classic prospects head a field of 10 for the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby over 1 1/8 miles.
The final Kentucky Derby prep for the two protagonists, this Florida Derby clash also has a blue collar vs. blue blood feel to it.
The Calder-based Itsmyluckyday was a multiple stakes winner over his home track as a juvenile, but did not seriously enter the classic picture until two dynamite scores over the Gulfstream strip this winter. A 6 3/4-length winner of the one-mile Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year's Day, the Lawyer Ron colt returned later that month to hand juvenile champion Shanghai Bobby his first defeat, by two lengths, in the Grade 3 Holy Bull over 1 1/16 miles.
"It was a matter of him finding his niche," trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. said. "I was waiting for the distance races all along. Did he far exceed anything that I thought? Absolutely. But I did expect him to be a distance horse."
Orb races for breeders Stuart Janney III and Phipps Stable, whose families have contributed immensely to virtually every facet of the sport over several generations but have not yet smelled the roses on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs. The Malibu Moon colt arguably represents their, and Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey's, best chance in many years of breaking the Derby hoodoo.
"He has made great strides since he got down here, starting with his first work at Payson," McGaughey said. "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 (Grade 1) Wood Memorial."
McGaughey's first expectation was met when Orb rallied to a one-length win against allowance foes on the Holy Bull undercard January 26. Orb went on to exceed those goals with another come-from-behind victory in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth on February 23. Benefiting from a lightning-quick pace, Orb made a four-wide rally to win the 1 1/16-mile fixture by a half-length over the now-retired Violence.
"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," McGaughey said.
Slightly lost in the shuffle, but no less dangerous, is Shanghai Bobby, who ripped through an undefeated juvenile campaign en route to Eclipse Award honors. Hero of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Champagne and Hopeful, the son of 2002 Florida Derby winner Harlan's Holiday was found wanting in deep stretch of the Holy Bull against a fresher Itsmyluckyday.
"He got beat fair and square, but I hope it will move him forward," said Jack Wolf, the managing partner of co-owner Starlight Racing. "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."
Shangahi Bobby, who has a good deal of early foot, drew post 1 for the Florida Derby, and might encounter early pressure from Merit Man, a multiple stakes winner who stretches out for the first time beyond seven furlongs.
Frac Daddy, second by a neck in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club in his juvenile finale, grabbed a quarter during the Holy Bull and wound up a badly-beaten sixth. The Ken McPeek trainee was later found to have had a throat ulcer, but has been training swiftly for his reappearance.
Are You Kidding Me, from the Roger Attfield barn, has raced exclusively on turf and Polytrack thus far. His best has come on turf, where he finished a close in the Grade 2 Summer at Woodbine and was beaten in a photo by the highly-regarded Noble Tune in a Tampa Bay Downs allowance last time.
Trainer Dale Romans and jockey Jesus Castanon, who nearly pulled off an upset of the 2011 Florida Derby with Shackleford, take their chances with Pick of the Litter, a dominating 7 1/2-length maiden winner over the Derby course-and-distance February 27.
The Florida Derby field is rounded out by longshots Pontiff, Indy's Illusion and Narvaez.