The road to the Kentucky Derby isn’t a straight path.
Just ask trainer Richard Violette Jr., whose Upstart appeared headed for victory in the Feb. 21 Fountain of Youth Stakes — a key prep for 3-year-olds — only to alter course, bump another horse and end up being disqualified to second.
Now Violette is hoping Upstart keeps his nose aimed directly toward the finish line in Saturday’s Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park for a redemptive victory that would validate his status as the top 3-year-old on the East Coast.
“There’s no question we have the Kentucky Derby in our sights,” Violette said of Upstart, who was listed as the 8-5 favorite after drawing the outside post in the field of nine.
The 11/8-mile Florida Derby carries a purse of $1 million and is a major steppingstone to the Triple Crown. Since its inaugural running in 1952, the Derby has produced 57 winners of Triple Crown races.
Upstart finished first in both of his two races at Gulfstream, including a 51/2-length win in the Holy Bull Stakes in January. And he crossed the wire first in the Fountain of Youth, nearly three lengths in front of Itsaknockout.
But after altering course in the stretch, stewards determined he impeded the progress of Itsaknockout and disqualified him to second.
Itsaknockout is back to take another run at Upstart in the Florida Derby for trainer Todd Pletcher, who is also sending out Materiality in the race. Both horses are undefeated but lightly raced.
This will be just the fourth race for Itsaknockout and third for Materiality.
“To be running in the Florida Derby off three starts and two starts is fairly uncommon,” Pletcher said.
But winning the race that way isn’t impossible. Pletcher knows that better than anyone. His Constitution triumphed in last year’s Florida Derby with only a few races under his belt.
“We were able to do it with Constitution last year, but it takes an exceptional horse to do it, and so far these have handled every step up that we’ve given them,” he said.
Itsaknockout is listed as the second choice at morning-line odds of 2-1, and Materiality will be the 7-2 third choice in the program.
Florida Derby draw
The field for Saturday’s $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park:
1. Ami’s Flatter
2. Jack Tripp
Irad Ortiz Jr.
6. My Point Exactly
Jesus M. Rios
Richard Violette Jr.
Jose L. Ortiz