The decision by stewards to disqualify Upstart from first for a bumping infraction in the Fountain of Youth Stakes didn’t sit well with his trainer, Rick Violette Jr.
He was outspoken in his belief that no infraction was committed.
Apparently, he’s still not over it.
After Upstart drew the disadvantageous far outside post for Saturday’s Florida Derby, Violette used the moment to take a lighthearted jab by saying “I didn’t realize the stewards were allowed to draw the pills here.”
As if the stewards had anything to do with the post position draw for the $1million race at Gulfstream Park, which they didn’t.
Despite landing the outside post in the field of nine for the major Kentucky Derby prep, track oddsmakers listed Upstart as the 8-5 favorite to prevail in South Florida’s biggest thoroughbred race of the year.
The winner will almost certainly inherit the throne as the top East Coast contender for the Run for the Roses on May 2. And Upstart has done little — save for his misadventures in the stretch run of the Fountain of Youth in February — to make most racing analysts believe otherwise.
“I think Upstart’s the best horse with the worst post,” veteran Daily Racing Form handicapper Mike Welsch said. “But if you’re in the worst post, it helps if you have the best horse.”
Upstart certainly has the credentials.
He turned in four strong performances as a 2-year-old, eventually capping his inaugural racing season with a third-place effort in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. As a 3-year-old, he romped to a 51/2-length victory in the Holy Bull Stakes before prevailing by nearly three lengths in the Fountain of Youth.
The only problem with the latter is that stewards determined he impeded Itsaknockout by altering course in the stretch, which led to his disqualification to second.
“It’s been a lot of months enjoying the journey,” Violette said, “and he hasn’t disappointed yet.”
The question becomes whether Upstart can keep it going in the 11/8-mile Florida Derby and fend off challenges by a pair of up-and-coming horses that are light on seasoning: Itsaknockout and Materiality. Both colts are trained by Todd Pletcher.
Thanks to the stewards’ decision in the Fountain of Youth, Itsaknockout remained unbeaten in three career starts. Materiality has raced just twice, winning both. But his victory in a minor stakes at Gulfstream earlier this month was an eye-catching 5 3/4-length blowout in which he earned a powerful Beyer Speed Figure of 102.
By comparison, the only other triple-digit Beyers in the Florida Derby field belong to Upstart, who recorded a 105 in his Holy Bull Stakes win and a 102 last year in the Champagne Stakes.
Whether Materiality has enough of a foundation to capture a Grade I event such as the Florida Derby is the biggest question mark.
“It’s a huge step,” Pletcher acknowledged.
But Materiality does have on thing in his favor beyond sheer talent: he’s the only horse in the field to win at the Derby’s 11/8-mile distance.
As a result, Gulfstream racing analyst Ron Nicoletti said he’s leaning toward Materiality to come out on top.
“I was tempted to pick Upstart,” Nicoletti said. “But I had to go with Materiality because he’s the only horse that has won at nine furlongs in the race. I think he has a tactical speed advantage.”
Nicoletti said Upstart’s poor post is concerning.
“It’s a short run to the first turn, so I thought Materiality would get the jump on him,” he said.
But Nicoletti is in the minority. Fellow track analyst Christina Bossinakis, for one, thinks Upstart is simply the better horse.
“He’s just really blossomed this season,” Bossinakis said. “He looks like he’s ready to go, and I don’t think the distance is going to be a problem as he goes further. I do have a little bit of a concern with the post. However, I do think he’s classy enough that if they work out a [clean] trip, he’ll be OK.”
“I think unless something crazy happens going into the first turn, as long as he can get position, I think he’s just better than those other horses,” Welsch said.
The Florida Derby is one of eight stakes on the 14-race program. Post time for the Florida Derby is scheduled for 6:48 p.m.
Florida Derby draw
The field and opening odds 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