This is what happens in horse racing. A thoroughbred so young, a four-legged athlete we have just met, wins a race like this one, this big, and the anointment is instant.
The horse in this case is a handsome bay colt, foaled on April 9, 2012 in Kentucky. Saturday was only his third race ever. No matter. He now carries a weight far greater than that of the jockey on his back.
His name is Materiality.
Now all he has to be is great. Something special.
Every Florida Derby winner, up to the challenge or not, accepts the onus of the sport’s Holy Grail. The winner of the biggest race in our state, and the biggest Triple Crown-season prep race on the East Coast, becomes the Sport of Kings’ designated dream-chaser and would be history-maker.
So, now, by the margin of 11/2 lengths in Saturday’s 64th Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, Materiality is chosen, the latest horse among those out front to win the May 2 Kentucky Derby and perhaps challenge to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
Odds are long, but the wait has been so long that we tend to want to think we see the next super horse on a day like this, even as a Triple Crown drought in it 37th year cautions us not to.
Is this finally the one?
Doubtful … but maybe!
Here is an even longer historic drought Materiality must now overcome.
Not since 1882 — yes, the 19th century — has a horse this lightly run, one that did not race as a 2-year-old, won the Kentucky Derby.
Saturday’s unremarkable winning time of 1 minute 52.3 seconds, the slowest winning Florida Derby time since 1955, will not build momentum in the favor of thinking Materiality extra special, even as winning trainer Todd Pletcher called the soft track “a demanding, demanding surface.”
A small controversy involving runner-up Upstart also will throw a bit of shade on Materiality’s triumph to anyone inclined to doubt.
Upstart had been the betting favorite at even money, with Materiality the second favorite at 9-5.
Drama bloomed late in the race when two horses running close began running too close.
Materiality appeared to nudge into Upstart, though likely not enough to affect the finish. But Upstart jockey Jose Ortiz called stewards postrace to seek an inquiry but was told the race had already been declared official. He tried to call back. No answer, he said.
Upstart trainer Rick Violette Jr. angrily used the words “incompetence” and “outrageous” after learning the finish had been called official with no opportunity for review.
Winning Materiality jockey John Velazquez — “Johnny V” in the stitching on his tracing silks — admitted, “We got very close, that’s for sure. A little brush was made, but I never really hit him. It was a little close. I got really close to the horse, definitely.”
The controversy wasn’t so much that Materiality had made improper contact that affected the outcome; it was that stewards seemed to declare the finish official so quickly there was no real chance for appeal.
The issue, the small shadow of an asterisk on the outcome, only adds to the burden on Materiality to prove himself special beginning May 2 at Churchill Downs.
Pletcher calls his newest prize pupil a “highly touted, highly recruited horse with a good pedigree.”
We wait to see if Materiality will fulfill his potential and rivet the country’s attention.
Meantime, there is no need to wait to marvel and appreciate this great South Florida event and the revitalization of Gulfstream Park.
The now $1 million Florida Derby has been a local fixture since 1952, its pedigree beyond question. The winners of this race have gone on that year to win 13 Kentucky Derbies (most recently Orb in 2013), 10 Preakness Stakes (the last Big Brown in 2008) and five Belmonts (most recently Empire Maker in 2003).
Fifty-seven Triple Crown races in all have been won by horses that also ran that spring at Gulfstream.
(Might the neophyte Materiality join the club?)
The Florida Derby is a pageant, a kaleidoscope. It is where high-rollers valet-parking Lamborghinis and women in ornate hats mingle with low-rollers hoping their horse is their Lotto ticket.
All sorts of moths are drawn to the racing bulb.
The owner of Sandiva, a horse in Saturday’s undercard 10th race, is a sheik in Qatar. The co-owner of White Rose, who ran in the 11th, is Rashard Lewis, the former Heat player. NFL defensive tackle Vince Wilfork was on the grounds, merrily wagering. Oh, and actress Rooney Mara, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, was a Gulfstream, too. She had reason. Her father, a New York Giants vice president, owns Itsaknockout, a fourth-place Derby finisher.
Credit Gulfstream for remaining as vital as its signature annual event.
Horse racing in general and track attendance have eroded over the years. In South Florida, Hialeah Racetrack closed and now runs only quarterhorses in order to keep its casino license. Struggling Calder has been absorbed by Gulfstream.
Gulfstream bucks the trend. Thrives. Saturday’s betting handle of $27.255 million set a Florida Derby record.
Gulfstream, like many big tracks, as a matter of survival, has refashioned itself as an entertainment complex augmented by a casino, gourmet restaurants and upscale retail shops. Gulfstream Park today is an ornate palace that looks like it would fit on the Strip in Las Vegas. Credit its ownership, the Stronach Group, which paid for the massive makeover with no hand out for public dollars.
We can’t know yet if the latest “it” horse, Materiality, will live up to the hype.
We do know Gulfstream Park will continue to be a vibrant stage that provides the chance.