A field of nine will take to battle in the 1 1/8 mile Grade 1 $1,000,000 Florida Derby on Saturday at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Florida. Trainer Michael Matz will send out the morning line favorite, Union Rags. Union Rags won the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park last month in his season debut. The question then was whether or not this son of Dixie Union would return to his winning two-year-old style or if he’d be another juvenile standout making a dismal sophomore debut. The question now is whether he can continue to improve and still leave something for the Kentucky Derby in May.
Union Rags is the best Derby prospect Matz has had since 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro. Barbaro won as the favorite in the 2006 edition of the Florida Derby by just a half-length and came back five weeks later to win the Kentucky Derby by 6 ½ lengths. Of course most know that two weeks later in the Preakness Stakes Barbaro suffered an injury that later proved fatal. Will Union Rags be able to take Matz to the places he dreamed he would go with Barbaro?
Union Rags will have to win the Florida Derby first and it’s not going to be a cake walk. His competition includes El Padrino, who won the Risen Star Stakes by a nose over Mark Valeski, and Take Charge Indy, who finished two lengths behind El Padrino in the optional claimer that put El Padrino on the map.
Many wondered if Todd Pletcher’s El Padrino’s win in that 1 1/16 mile optional claimer over a wet track was a fluke, but when he came back a month later and won the Risen Star Stakes he cemented his status as one of the top Kentucky Derby contenders. He is two for two this year and has earned Brisnet speed figures topping 100 in both starts. Jockey Javier Castellano will again be aboard to keep this colt moving forward.
Take Charge Indy has not raced since the aforementioned optional claimer. His trainer, Patrick Byrne, chose to skip the Tampa Bay Derby (March 10) because of a poor post position and wait for the Florida Derby. The downside to that is that this colt, who looked just as promising in February as El Padrino, will be making his first start after a two-month layoff in a very difficult race and will have only one real Derby prep. Unless he finishes in the money Saturday that won’t really matter because he won’t have the graded earnings to even make the Derby field.
Another tough competitor to watch for in Saturday’s race is Dale Romans’ News Pending. He finished four lengths behind Union Rags in the Fountain of Youth, but he looks like a colt on the improve. It’s hard to say that he’ll be able to beat Union Rags or El Padrino on Saturday, but he’s definitely one to keep in your exotics.
The remainder of the field includes Fort Louden, Neck ‘N Neck, Z Camelot, Bartolome, and Reveron. The race is the 11th on Gulfstream Park’s star-studded 13-race card. The scheduled post-time is 5:40 p.m. The race can be seen as part of “The Road to the Derby” series on NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus). The one-hour broadcast begins at 5:00 p.m. and will include the Gulfstream Oaks for three-year-old fillies.
Photo: Courtesy Kentucky Derby