Cairo Prince romped in his January 25 sophomore debut in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park, sweeping around horses on the turn and drawing off to an easy 5 3/4-length victory. While demonstrating an abundant amount of class, talent and professionalism, the gray son of Pioneerof the Nile left Gulfstream fans wanting to see more.
Anticipation for what Cairo Prince will do for an encore has been building for eight long weeks, but racing fans will finally get the chance to see the Kiaran McLaughlin-trained star back in action Saturday in the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby.
The 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby anchors a 14-race program that offers eight stakes including the Grade 2, $300,000 Gulfstream Oaks; Grade 2, $200,000 Pan American; Grade 3, $150,000 Rampart; Grade 3, $150,000 Orchid; Grade 3, $100,000 Appleton; and Grade 3, $100,000 Skip Away. It will be part of a one-hour telecast on NBC Sports Network from 6:30-7:30 p.m. (EDT).
After Cairo Prince registered his third victory in four starts in the Holy Bull, McLaughlin decided to bypass the Fountain of Youth on February 22 and train the Kentucky-bred up to Gulfstream's signature race. McLaughlin is expecting the exact same Cairo Prince who won the Holy Bull to show up at Gulfstream Saturday to take on seven rivals entered Wednesday morning for the 63rd running of the Florida Derby.
"I don't want to see any changes. I don't want any changes. This is a special horse. All I want to do is keep him sound and healthy and to get him in the starting gate," McLaughlin said. "I don't want to see any changes. Changes would be negative. He couldn't be doing any better."
McLaughlin will bring back Cairo Prince from the two-month layoff with a high degree of confidence that his colt will be in top form, having established a record of excellence in returning major stakes horses from long layoffs, most notably with 2006 Horse of the Year Invasor, who captured the Breeders' Cup Classic off a scheduled three-month layoff.
"We have a great team of help. But more importantly, I'm going to say it's more about the horses," McLaughlin said. "Every day of training is important. We get a lot of miles in, but I don't feel like we do anything different from anyone else off the layoff. It's spotting them well in races, and it's the horse. It's important to have the right horse."
Cairo Prince, who was installed as the 9-5 morning-line favorite for the Florida Derby, brings an imposing record into the race. He broke his maiden at first asking with a 2 3/4-length victory at Belmont Park last October 8 and came right back to win the Nashua by 2 1/2 lengths on November 3. The gray came up a nose short of capturing the Remsen at Aqueduct on November 30 while conceding six pounds to victorious Honor Code. Nearly two months later, Cairo Prince ran away with the Holy Bull to establish himself as a top-ranking Triple Crown prospect.
Despite his stellar record, Cairo Prince is hardly assured of qualifying for the first leg of the Triple Crown, having amassed only 14 points. He will need a victory or a second-place finish under jockey Luis Saez in the Florida Derby to be assured of making it to Louisville, Kentucky, on the first Saturday in May. The Florida Derby has 170 points up for grabs with 100 going to the winner, 40 to the place horse, 20 to the show horse and 10 for the fourth-place finisher.
"I don't care what system they use, they've got to have a safeguard of having three spots, five spots that the racing secretary can fill with horses that deserve to run that don't have enough points," McLaughlin said. "The Breeders' Cup does it. It works fine.
"What if Cairo Prince drops the rider warming up and scratches? He should be in the Derby, but we only have 14 points. There's no safeguard. They want us in there because he's one of the best horses.
"He's happy, and we're happy with post three," the trainer concluded. "There's a lot of speed in there, so I think we'll be coming from behind. He's doing great. He galloped today, and we're very happy with him."
While Cairo Prince was training for the Florida Derby, Wildcat Red picked up enough points to qualify for the first leg of the Triple Crown while posting a narrow triumph over General a Rod in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth.
The son of D'wildcat has crossed the wire first in five of his six lifetime starts, all at Gulfstream, since breaking his maiden by eight lengths last September. Wildcat Red's only losses came as a runner-up finish in the Juvenile Sprint last November, which he won by 1 1/4 lengths before being disqualified to second, and a narrow head defeat to General a Rod in the Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year's Day.
The Jose Garoffalo-trained colt rebounded from the Gulfstream Park Derby to win the seven-furlong Hutcheson on February 1 by 4 3/4 lengths before successfully stretching out around two turns for the first time in the Fountain of Youth, in which he was involved in a race-long battle with General a Rod before edging that rival by, appropriately enough, a head.
Garoffalo is confident that Wildcat Red will carry his speed over 1 1/8 miles on Saturday.
"I think it's going to be easier, still easier for him, because the pace is supposed to be slower. I think the slower he goes, the further he can go," Garoffalo said. "I'm not worried about the extra half of a furlong in the race -- that's going to be in the favor of my horse."
Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez is scheduled to ride Wildcat Red, rated second at 3-1 in the morning line, for the first time.
"I feel it's going to be a tough race, but the horse has been training very good and the horse has been feeling very good," Garoffalo said. "There is no reason not to be confident.
"I'm OK with the post position," Garoffalo added about the Florida-bred colt's rail assignment. "He's the speed of the race. He can go on the lead and the post position will be in favor of him. He likes the inside. He likes to go inside horses. His previous two races, he was on the inside and got beat (a head) and the other one he won. It's going to be OK. He's got the ability and the versatility to rate. I'm not worried about the post position. This track, the No. 1 is favorable for a mile and an eighth."
Just as Garoffalo thinks the Florida Derby's nine furlongs enhances Wildcat Red's chances on Saturday, trainer Mike Maker said longer distances will only help General a Rod, who was rated third at 7-2 in the morning line.
"You guys haven't seen it yet but I think his best asset is going to be his tactical speed," Maker said. "He's got a high cruising speed, and I think you'll see the true General a Rod once the distances increase."
General a Rod debuted with a 2 3/4-length victory going seven furlongs at Keeneland last October before finishing second in a one-mile allowance at Churchill on November 30. The son of Roman Ruler faced Wildcat Red in his next two starts, exchanging decisions with that rival.
"The 6 (post) is good. We've got to press him (Wildcat Red). If Constitution chooses to do so, that would be fine too," Maker remarked. "The speed's to our inside, so it kind of gives us options, whereas everybody else might be forced to force their hand a little.
"He was always a good-looking horse that made an impression right away as soon as he stepped into the barn. He has never disappointed us."
Joel Rosario, who was aboard for General a Rod's Gulfstream Park Derby win and rode Orb to Kentucky Derby glory last year, will be reunited with General a Rod for the Florida Derby.
Constitution has hardly been a disappointment in his two lifetime starts, both convincing victories at Gulfstream. The Todd Pletcher-trained colt broke his maiden at first asking on January 11 despite a slow start before capturing a 1 1/16-mile allowance on the front end by 3 1/4 lengths in a time that compared favorably with that registered by Wildcat Red in the Fountain of Youth later in the day.
The bay son of Tapit was rated fourth on the morning line at 4-1 for his quantum leap to Grade 1 stakes.
"It takes a very talented, quality horse to do that. It's something that we don't often try. We only do it with horses that we feel like merit that type of consideration," Pletcher admitted. "He's been perfect so far. Both of his races have been very good. He showed heart and determination in his first race when he didn't break well. His second race went as we planned. He's a horse that always trained like he's capable of those type of efforts, but at the same time you have to respect what a difficult thing it is to do in only his third lifetime start.
"He's doing very well," Pletcher noted. "We're very pleased with the way he's coming into the race. I'm happy with post 4. We're outside of Wildcat Red and inside of General a Rod, so we're looking for a forwardly placed position. We'll play it off the break and let Javier (Castellano) make that decision as things unfold."
Spot, who finished fifth behind Wildcat Red in the Hutcheson in his stakes debut, made his first start for owner Joseph Moss and trainer Nick Zito a winning one in the March 1 Swale at Gulfstream. The gelded son of Pulpit sat off the pace before making a sweeping move to the lead and upsetting heavily favored No Nay Never by 2 1/2 lengths in the seven-furlong contest.
Zito, who has named Corey Lanerie to ride, said he has witnessed Spot continue to blossom in his training since his impressive Swale victory.
"I've been in enough of these things to know that you need to get good at the right time," the trainer said, before adding about his pupil's outside post, "The last two pills were 1 and 8, and I would have preferred the 1. I do a lot of handicapping and I've watched Gulfstream races a long time going a mile and an eighth. No matter how you slice it, you always give up a few lengths. However, Mr. Moss owns the horse and you can always pick up a couple lengths, maybe, with his good karma. That's the way you have to look at it."
Matador, a late-running colt who finished fourth by just a length in the February 1 Sam F. Davis and fifth in the March 8 Tampa Bay Derby in his past two, will be equipped with blinkers for the first time by trainer Mark Casse with the hope of getting the son of Malibu Moon to show a little more early interest in the race. Rated at 15-1 in the morning line, Matador will be ridden by Julien Leparoux.
"With the mile and an eighth and the smaller field, the post position is not a big deal," Casse said. "It's a tough race. We're just trying to give our horse another chance. We thought his last race wasn't a true indication of his ability, but we'll find out on Saturday."
East Hall finished a late-closing third in the Gulfstream Derby and fourth in the Fountain of Youth before running a disappointing eighth in the Tampa Bay Derby. Trainer Bill Kaplan has named Juan Leyva to ride the son of Graeme Hall.
Allstar, a recent allowance winner at Calder who is making his stakes bow in the Florida Derby, completes the field. Trainer Marcus Vitali and jockey Orlando Bocachica both registered the first Grade 1 victories of their respective careers with Lochte's upset in the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap on February 8.