Trainer Nick Zito knew Ice Box was a much better horse than his fifth-place finish in the Fountain of Youth indicated. He proved that point Saturday at Gulfstream Park when Ice Box rallied from last and outfinished fellow longshot Pleasant Prince by a nose to capture the $750,000 Florida Derby and in the process earn himself a spot in the Kentucky Derby on May 1.
In the Fountain of Youth, Ice Box broke last, made a strong middle move, fanned six wide into the stretch but could not sustain the bid, eventually finishing a dozen lengths behind Eskendereya in the 1 1/8-mile race. That effort set Ice Box up perfectly for the Saturday's race and his chances improved even more when the connections of the first three finishers from the Fountain of Youth, including Eskendereya, opted to send their horses in different directions rather than return in the Florida Derby.
Ice Box broke with the field on Saturday but after that his trip in the Florida Derby pretty much mirrored the one he had in the Fountain of Youth. With jockey Jose Lezcano aboard, Ice Box dropped back to last before the field had traveled a sixteenth of a mile into the nine-furlong Florida Derby. Ice Box lagged more than a dozen lengths behind the early pace of 9-5 favorite Rule and Pulsion, who set realistic splits of 23.54 and 46.46 seconds.
Rule gradually edged clear leaving the quarter pole but by that time Ice Box was in full gear. Lezcano allowed him to sweep about six wide while continuing his rally coming off the final bend. Ice Box was then able to overtake the 29-1 Pleasant Prince in the final strides despite failing to switch leads down the stretch.
Pleasant Prince had finished fourth, nearly two lengths in front of Ice Box in the Fountain of Youth. He too was reserved off the early pace, swung five wide into the stretch, gained a brief advantage from Rule between calls inside the sixteenth pole, but just failed to last.
Lentenor, whose older brother Barbaro won the 2006 Florida Derby as a prep for his victory five weeks later in the Kentucky Derby, finished 4 1/2 lengths further back in fourth after steadying briefly and altering course to the inside in early stretch.
First Dude, Pulsion, Game On Dude, Soaring Empire, Radiohead, Miner's Reserve, and Best Actor rounded out the complete order of finish.
Ice Box, a son of Pulpit who is owned by Robert La Penta, completed a mile and one-eighth in 1:49.19 and paid $43.40. He became the second Florida Derby winner for Zito, who also won the race in 2005 with High Fly.
"He had post 10 last time, had a rough trip and ran incredibly," said Zito, referring to Ice Box's performance in the Fountain of Youth. "He made a run today that was beyond belief. If he stays healthy this is a horse to reckon with because he just keeps getting better and he has such a great kick."
Zito said he was uncertain whether he'll give Ice Box another prep or train him the six weeks into the Kentucky Derby.
"I'd like to take him to Kentucky, see how he progresses and then go from there," said Zito.
Trainer Todd Pletcher said he thought Rule, who had his four-race win streak snapped with his third-place finish in the Florida Derby, ran a courageous race in defeat.
"Talking to Johnny afterwards he felt like if he could do it over again he would have waited a little longer or tried to get him off the pace a little bit," said Pletcher, referring to jockey John Velazquez. "He was one of the few horses that was up there prompting the pace that stuck around and hopefully the race will move him forward and set him up for the one that counts the most."