Their names are Itsmyluckyday, Shanghai Bobby and Orb and racing publications have been calling them “the Big Three” in the build-up to Saturday’s $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.
All three have won a graded stakes at 11/16 miles, with the victories by Itsmyluckyday and Orb at Gulfstream, and are among leading contenders for the Kentucky Derby on May 4.
It would be a big upset if one of the seven other horses in the field wins the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby (Grade1), the day’s 12th race with scheduled post time of 6:19 p.m.
But the speedy Merit Man, at 15-1 in the morning line, could be the most important horse in determining the order of finish in the Florida Derby.
Merit Man has the potential to be unchallenged on the lead, and thus force some rival jockeys to change plans in mid race.
Merit Man has won two stakes at six furlongs, including the Spectacular Bid at Gulfstream last Jan. 1. But he has never been in a race longer than seven furlongs.
On Friday, trainer Bob Hess Jr. said he plans to have jockey Kent Desormeaux take Merit Man into the lead “and let them try to catch us.”
“The purse is great, and we decided to take a shot,” Hess said.
He is not predicting a win for Merit Man. But he thinks his horse can run a stronger 11/8-mile race than most in this field.
Orb won the Fountain of Youth (Grade 2) on Feb. 23 with an eye-popping rally from seventh place after a half mile.
His trainer Claude R. “Shug” McGaughey is hoping for a fast pace that could take its toll on the leader.
“I think we’ll see at least one of the new horses try to stay with Merit Man and hope to steal a piece,” he said.
Itsmyluckyday, trained by Eddie Plesa Jr., rated off the pace and beat Shanghai Bobby by two lengths in winning the Holy Bull (Grade 3) at Gulfstream and set a 1 1/16-mile track record of 1:41.81.
1/16 mile Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (Grade 1) at Santa Anita Park.
Frac Daddy and Pick of the Litter, in just his third start, could be good candidates for the trifecta and superfecta. Frac Daddy finished second in the Kentucky Jockey Club (Grade 2) at Churchill Downs last Nov. 24. But he finished sixth in the Fountain of Youth, a race when he suffered a hoof injury.
Frac Daddy has recovered and “is ready for a good race,” said his trainer Ken McPeek. Since March 6, Frac Daddy has had two bullet workouts at Gulfstream.
On Feb. 27 at Gulfstream, Pick of the Litter won a 1 1/8-mile dirt race for maidens in the fast time of 1:49.35. That was almost two seconds faster than Orb’s winning time at that distance at Gulfstream on Jan. 26. But it is important to note that Pick of the Litter ran in a four-horse field and will face more traffic and pressure in the Florida Derby.
The Florida Derby outcome will impact the makeup of the Kentucky Derby field of 20 horses.
Orb has 50 qualifying points, all from the Fountain of Youth, and is sixth on the list and virtually assured a spot.
The Florida Derby will be the first race where the winner will get 100 Kentucky Derby points. For second through fourth place, the points are 40, 20 and 10.
Shanghai Bobby is 12th with 24 points and Itsmyluckyday is tied for 20th with 10 points. With the cutoff likely around 30, both will be seeking points on Saturday.
Whichever horse wins the Florida Derby will earn $600,000 and also a guaranteed spot in the Kentucky Derby.