Upstart is tabbed the 8-5 morning-line favorite for the $1 million Besilu Stables Florida Derby March 28 Gulfstream Park. Eight opponents include Itsaknockout, to whom he lost last time out via disqualification.
The Florida Derby has produced 57 winners of Triple Crown races since its inaugural running in 1952. This year's 1-1/8-mile contest will provide the winner 100 points in the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" standings. It is the finale on a 14-race card that includes eight stakes, seven of which are graded.
Ralph M. Evans' Upstart streaked to a 5-1/2-length triumph in the Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes Jan. 24 in his season's debut at Gulfstream before crossing the finish line first, 2-3/4 lengths in front of undefeated Itsaknockout, in the Besilu Stables Fountain of Youth Stakes Feb. 21. The stewards ruled, however, that Upstart impeded Itsaknockout while drifting out in the stretch and elevated that rival to the victory while demoting Upstart to second.
Upstart drew the outside post 9 in the Florida Derby, a spot trainer Rick Violette said would have been his last choice.
"It's not ideal; it's a little longer run to the first turn," he said. "You just have to deal with it. That's what the jock is up there for. You hope he breaks clean and gets a clear run. You don't have horses pressing him from the outside, but I'd like to have been inside, even one post inside."
Violette is expecting Upstart to produce a top-class effort Saturday's race. The New York-bred son of Flatter closed his 2-year-old campaign with a second-place finish in the Champagne Stakes and a third-place finish in the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
"He ran a huge race first time out," Violette said of Upstart, a 5-1/4-length debut winner last summer at Saratoga Race Course. "He figured to bounce, regress, after that, but we thought he could do that and still win, which he did. This race is supposed to be better than that race.
"This is an important race. There's no question we have the [Kentucky] Derby in our sights, but this is a grade I and a million dollars. It's not like you lead them over half-fit with no intentions."
Jose Ortiz has the mount on Upstart.
Trainer Todd Pletcher won last year's Florida Derby with Constitution and will send out two runners this year in Itsaknockout and Materiality. Like Constitution, both enter with perfect records.
Though he finished behind Upstart in his stakes debut in the Fountain of Youth, Itsaknockout was credited with a third straight win in as many starts. Starlight Racing's son of Lemon Drop Kid started his career with a late-running victory by a nose going seven furlongs Dec. 7, and then pulled away to a 5-3/4-length triumph when stretched out to a mile in his second start Jan. 4, both at Gulfstream.
Itsaknockout was tabbed the 2-1 second choice and will be ridden by Luis Saez from post 4.
"(Itsaknockout) has trained very well," Pletcher said. "He's a very consistent colt and very easy to train. He's one of those horses that does whatever you ask. You'd never know he's in the barn. [Where he is in the race] is going to depend on the pace scenario a little bit. It doesn't look on paper like this race has a ton of front-runners.
"I think he's the type of colt that's adaptable to any running style, but we'd envision him probably not being too far off of it if the pace is soft."
Alto Racing's Materiality, the 7-2 third choice on the morning line, debuted Jan. 11 with a 4-1/4-length victory at six furlongs at Gulfstream before romping away to win by 5-3/4 lengths from highly regarded stablemate Stanford when stretching out to 1-1/8 miles in the Islamorada Handicap March 6.
"To be running in the Florida Derby off three starts and two starts is fairly uncommon," Pletcher said. "We were able to do it with Constitution last year, but it takes exceptional horses to do it, and so far these two have handled every step up that we've given them."
John Velazquez has the mount on Materiality, who will break from post 7.
"[Materiality] is relatively inexperienced, but the good thing is he got a quality mile-and-an-eighth race over the track," Pletcher said. The concern there is we're coming back in 22 days off a very fast race. But he's a big, strong colt and carries his weight well, and he has trained very well since.
"I'm happy with both (post positions). I think they're both colts that should establish a forward position in the first turn and hopefully stay out of trouble."
After breezing a half mile in :48.90 at Palm Meadows Training Center, Ami's Flatter was added to the Florida Derby cast. Trainer Josie Carroll had also been considering the April 4 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland for Ivan Dalos' son of Flatter, who finished second in the Tampa Bay Derby March 7.
"The time-frame between this race and the (Kentucky) Derby is better," said Carroll, who saddled Ami's Flatter for a second-place finish in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes Jan. 3 at Gulfstream. "He seems to like this surface very much."
Javier Castellano has the mount on Ami's Flatter, who will start from the post 1. He is pegged at 8-1.
Trainer Dale Romans has a pair of colts for the Florida Derby: Indianaughty and maiden winner Jack Tripp, both at 20-1 on the morning line.
Team Valor International's Indianaughty, who won his first two starts on synthetic surfaces in England for trainer Marco Botti, debuted for Romans with a late-running allowance victory Jan. 4 on the Gulfstream turf course. The Kentucky-bred son of Indian Charlie, subsequently ninth in the El Camino Real Derby on Golden Gate Fields' synthetic surface Feb. 14, is scheduled to make his first start on dirt in the Florida Derby and will be ridden by Corey Lanerie from post 3.
Robert Baron's Jack Tripp has finished off the board in two one-turn mile appearances at Gulfstream but scored his lone win by five lengths around two turns at Keeneland last fall. Irad Ortiz Jr. has the call on the Flatter gelding, who will start from post 2.
The field includes My Point Exactly (Juan Leyva, post 6, 30-1), Quimet (Edgard Zayas, post 5, 20-1), and Dekabrist (Jesus Rios, post 8, 30-1).