Trainer Todd Pletcher showed off the strength of his Kentucky Derby hand in the days leading up to Saturday's $750,000 Florida Derby when he reshuffled the deck and withdrew one of his aces yet still had another left to play in the marquee event of the Gulfstream Park meeting.
The Grade 1 Florida Derby highlights a 12-race program that includes four other graded stakes. Post time for the Florida Derby is set at 6:20 p.m. Eastern with the race to be shown live during a half-hour broadcast beginning at 6 p.m. on HRTV. It also will be streamed live on NTRA.com.
Pletcher had planned on running his leading Kentucky Derby candidate Eskendereya in the Florida Derby until Tuesday, when owner Ahmad Zayat announced Eskendereya would bypass the race and instead be pointed to the Wood Memorial in New York two weeks later. But despite the late-minute decision to keep Eskendereya in the barn, Pletcher will still send out the Florida Derby favorite, with Rule expected to be a solid choice to defeat 10 other 3-year-olds. Only one of his opponents, Radiohead, has won anything beyond an entry-level allowance race.
Rule, a son of Roman Ruler owned by the WinStar Farm, will bring a four-race win streak into the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby. The streak includes victories in the Grade 3 Delta Jackpot in his 2-year-old finale and the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs to open his 3-year-old campaign. All four of those tallies have come in wire-to-wire fashion. The Florida Derby will be Rule's first start beyond 1 1/16 miles.
"Although we'd been strongly considering this race for Eskendereya, this horse was also prepared the entire time exactly as if he was running in the Florida Derby," said Pletcher. "We wouldn't have done one thing differently."
Pletcher obviously expects Rule to be a forward factor on Saturday but not necessarily on the lead.
"Too much is being made of the fact that he's one dimensional. He's really not," said Pletcher. "We'll continue to allow the horse to run the way he wants to run, and if he's on the lead again, fine. We're not going to take away what's easy for him, and going a mile and one-eighth at Gulfstream Park you've got to establish position going into that first turn."
Even though Rule has more than enough graded earnings to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, Pletcher said the Florida Derby is not just a prep toward that goal.
"In our eyes this is a Grade 1, stallion-making race," said Pletcher. "We're in here to win. We've got six weeks to recover if he has a particularly hard race."
Radiohead is the only other member of the field with more than two victories and enough graded money in the bank to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. A son of Johannesburg who was purchased privately by the IEAH Stables Pegasus Holding Group prior to his seventh-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Radiohead won the Group 2 Norfolk and finished second in the Group 1 Middle Park in his native England at 2. Both of those races came on turf. He was turned over to trainer Rick Dutrow following the Breeders' Cup.
Radiohead, who will break from post 11 on Saturday, rallied to an easy 3 1/4-length victory over his Grade 1-winning stablemate Homeboykris making his 3-year-old and dirt debut here on Feb. 27.
"The key for him will be the break," said Dutrow. "If he breaks good he should have position and we'll be okay. If not then he could get hung up wide. All we want is to have position without having to ask him to get there. If he breaks well, I'd be very disappointed if he doesn't finish one-two-three."
Dutrow said that even though Radiohead is all but in the Kentucky Derby field, he still needs to see another big effort Saturday to punch his ticket into the big dance.
"This will be a good test for him," said Dutrow. "He proved he was a good one in Europe and that he could handle the dirt in his first start over here. But we still need him to run a credible race on Saturday and show us he belongs in the Derby."
Beyond Rule and Radiohead, the Florida Derby field consists of nine much less accomplished but very promising 3-year-olds hoping to take a giant step forward on Saturday.
"Todd's is the horse to beat and after that it's a matter of who will improve the most on this particular day," said Patrick Biancone, whose Pulsion is among that group. "It's not just a matter of earning enough graded money to get into the Kentucky Derby. These horses also need to show they are both talented and mature enough to belong at that level at this particular time. All I'm hoping for is a clean trip and no excuses for my horse. Then we'll find out."
Pulsion, who showed a flash of brilliance when second behind Lookin At Lucky in the Grade 2 Norfolk at 2, finished 11th after getting knocked around early in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and sixth behind Eskendereya after some early trouble in the Fountain of Youth.
Ice Box and Soaring Empire are both first-level allowance winners. Ice Box finished fifth following a slow start and wide trip in the Fountain of Youth, while Soaring Empire overcame early trouble to capture a first-level allowance race going seven furlongs here last month.
First Dude has won just once in four starts, but was a very game second behind his nemesis Fly Down in a nine-furlong allowance race on Feb. 21.
Completing the field are Lentenor - who is the brother of 2006 Florida Derby winner Barbaro - Pleasant Prince, Game on Dude, Miner's Reserve, and Best Actor.