One winner of the Kentucky Derby will be on display Saturday at Gulfstream Park.
And maybe two.
Last year’s winner — Always Dreaming, who is co-owned by Florida Panthers owner Vinnie Viola — is scheduled to make his racing return following a seven-month layoff.
Six races later, nine Triple Crown hopefuls will line up in the 67th running of the Florida Derby, a major springboard for this year’s Run for the Roses on May 5.
It all adds up to the most compelling card of the year in Florida.
Todd Pletcher, who has already wrapped up his 15th consecutive training title at Gulfstream, will saddle the two horses expected to draw the most attention on Saturday’s 14-race card: Always Dreaming and Audible.
The former is bidding to make his way back to the winner’s circle for the first time since last year’s Kentucky Derby.
The latter will be trying to follow in the footsteps of his older stablemate.
A victory in the Florida Derby would all but cement Audible’s status as the leading Kentucky Derby contender on the East Coast. The colt is coming out of an impressive 5-length win in Gulfstream’s Holy Bull Stakes on Feb. 3.
As such, he’s the 9-5 program favorite to win the $1.1 million stakes.
“What was most impressive in the Holy Bull is how he kicked on after prompting solid fractions,” said Pletcher, who has saddled Florida Derby winners Materiality (2015), Constitution (2014) and Scat Daddy (2007), as well as Always Dreaming last year. “He was able to find another gear.”
Audible will be stretching out from the 1 1/16-mile distance of the Holy Bull to the 1 1/8-mile distance of the Florida Derby.
“The way he finished at a mile and a sixteenth you wouldn’t think a mile and an eighth would be an issue,” Pletcher said. “He still has to go out and do it. If he can duplicate that performance, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
While track conditions fluctuate, Audible’s winning time in the Holy Bull was nearly two seconds faster than that of Promises Fulfilled — perhaps his top challenger Saturday — in winning Gulfstream’s Fountain of Youth Stakes earlier this month.
Promises Fulfilled, the 3-1 second program choice in the Florida Derby and the possible pacesetter, is trained by Dale Romans. The colt and jockey Irad Ortiz got away with soft early fractions in the Fountain of Youth to hold off Strike Power for a two-length win.
“He’s just fast and he has great stamina to keep going,” Romans said. “He’s going to go to the lead. We’re not changing anything now.”
Jockey John Velazquez has the mount on both Audible and Always Dreaming, who will be trying to get back on track in the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Hardacre Mile.
Following his Derby win, Always Dreaming finished a disappointing eighth in the Preakness, then lost twice more before being taken out of training.
Pletcher said Always Dreaming is back on his game.
“Anytime you have a Derby winner you always want them to be fit and ready to run well when you bring them back,” Pletcher said. “Hopefully, we’ve been able to do it.”
Always Dreaming is listed as a slight 9-5 favorite over 2-1 Irish War Cry, second-place finisher in last year’s Belmont Stakes.
Post time for Saturday’s first race is 11:30 a.m. The Florida Derby, the last race on the card, is scheduled to go off at 6:36 p.m.