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Will Tomcito prove he belongs on Derby trail?

Joe Hirsh, who has seen everything, was always the go-to source in the wake of unusual developments. When asked, and it was often, "... has this happened before?" the now retired Daily Racing Form columnist would answer, "... everything has happened before."

Thirty-seven years ago, a horse bred in Kentucky sold at auction for next to nothing and exported to South America returned to Louisville and won the Derby in what was considered at the time the most shocking upset in the history of America's race with a rally that carried him from 18th of 20 to a decisive victory.

A colt of modest lineage, Cannonero II, was sold at auction for $1,200 with no extra charge for a split hoof and crooked foreleg to Venezuelan connections, gained instant celebrity on both sides of the equator for his astounding Triple Crown exploits and endures still among the legendary figures in Latin American racing history. He would repeat his Derby victory in the Preakness and drew what was at the time the largest crowd ever to see the third leg of the Triple Crown to Belmont Park for an unsuccessful attempt to sweep the Triple Crown.

Cannonero II's sale price converts in 2008 dollars to $7,299.96, slightly less than the $7,500 paid for Tomcito at the 2006 Keeneland September yearling sale, where despite the paternal influence of Street Cry, sire of last year's Derby and Travers winner Street Sense, the yet to be named colt's price was muted by ungainly, wide-set forelegs. Trainer Dante Zanelli made the final bid on behalf of casino owners Polo and Omar Monti, long-established horsemen in Peru and shipped the colt to Lima.

Tomcito has grown to size a close to Canonero II's 16 hands and like the Venezuelan legend, has developed a long, fluid, ground-covering stride despite obvious flawed conformation.

While Canonero II was a far more experienced horse when sent directly from Caracas to Louisville, Tomcito has started only five times in Peru, winning four, and if he is to run in the Kentucky Derby, he must first prove himself in Saturday's Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park

"It was a different case for Canonero," Zanelli said last week at Gulfstream."They knew what they had. That might be the case for our horse, but we're in a different place."

Like all South American horsemen, Zanelli was raised hearing tales of the exploits of Canonero II. He is aware that in 37 years since that fateful Derby only a handful of horses have emerged from South America to reach the highest levels in the North America, most recently the international superstar Invasor, who left South America after having swept the Uruguayan triple crown. No South American three-year-old since 1971 has made an impact in Kentucky,

While the thought of winning the most-important race run in the United States with a colt dismissed as a yearling by the world's keenest eyes for youthful potential, the minions of Arab royalty (the powerful Darley Stable is co-breeder) and the most astute and successful of American trainers and pinhookers must enter his thoughts, Zanelli at this stage is focused on the development of Tomcito without entertaining the possibility that his horse is ready to take up Canonero II's mantle.

"He has this really nice stride," Zanelli said. "He was a little wide in front and he's a little wide with the way he walks, but when we brought him to the racetrack he really started to stretch out. He covers a lot of ground. We need to see where he is. He's been working steadily since we got him here and our goal has been to get him as ready as we can for a race like the Florida Derby. We're almost there."

Tomcito has not run since last November, when he won the 12-furlong Derby Nacional. He was runner-up at a mile in the Peruvian 2,000 Guineas but owns a victory at 10 furlongs in the Clasico Ricardo Ortiz de Zevallos, making him the only three-year-old currently in this country to have won races at both 10 and 12 furlongs. Not insignificantly he won those races, including a Peruvian classic, in competition with horses bred in the Southern Hemisphere who enjoyed an advantage of several months more development and foundation.

His position in the Kentucky Derby chase, which is becoming increasingly complicated as it progresses, will be defined by Tomcito's performance in the Grade 1 Florida Derby. The anticipated participants include Big Brown, the undefeated, lightly raced and so far untouchable colt from trainer Rick Dutrow's arsenal; the Barclay Tagg-trained Elysium Fields, a fast-closing runner-up to Cool Coal Man in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, and Fierce Wind, a Nick Zito-trained colt who won the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs over Big Truck, subsequent winner of the Tampa Bay Derby. If Tomcito stands his ground in Florida on Saturday, there will be no question that he belongs among the eventual 20 assembled at Churchill Downs on May 3. If the odds appear to be stacked against the best three-year-old in Peru, they have been from the outset of his career.

"I like to point out," said Zanelli, "that 51 horses went to Peru two years ago from the U.S. Only three of them made the classics down there and only one of them won."

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at paulmoran47@hotmail.com.