HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. The first six furlongs were mere posturing. Once Quality Road and Dunkirk were side by side, thats when the Florida Derby really began.
Thats also when Quality Road announced himself as a serious Kentucky Derby contender.
Pulling away in the stretch, Quality Road held off previously unbeaten Dunkirk on Saturday to win the Grade 1 race at Gulfstream Park, giving the colt his second graded stakes win in as many starts.
Next up: The Run for the Roses, where Quality Road will surely be one of the top choices at Churchill Downs on May 2.
Its a lot of pressure, said trainer Jimmy Jerkens, whos taking a horse from his barn into racings most famed race for the first time. But you know, its good to be in that position.
Sure beats the alternative.
Quality Road paid $4.40, $2.40 and $2.10, and finished in a track-record 1:47.72 over nine furlongs. Dunkirk, who needed a win to cinch a spot in the Kentucky Derby field, was second by nearly two lengths and paid $2.40 and $2.10. Theregoesjojo was third, paying $2.10.
Due respect to Theregoesjojo, it was expected to be a two-horse race and lived up to that billing.
Quality Road settled in near the lead, as Dunkirk loomed about seven lengths back. With about three furlongs remaining, jockey Garrett Gomez gave Dunkirk the signal to go and got an immediate response, as his horse made a sweeping move and got to the front.
Whether Dunkirk ever actually took the lead around the second turn, no one was certain. Jerkens said he did. His jockey, John Velazquez, said he didnt.
Ultimately, it didnt matter. By the end, there was no question who was leading.
Ive got to give it to my horse, said Velazquez, who turned down a chance to run a $6 million race in Dubai on Saturday so he could stay with Quality Road, whos now won three of his four career starts. As soon as I asked him, he went for me, he responded and he went away. Definitely a great feeling.
And with that, the alternative view was offered by Todd Pletcher, Dunkirks trainer.
Pletchers original plan was to enter a rabbit or pacesetter into the race and prevent Quality Road from setting the pace by himself. But that second Pletcher-trainee, Europe, was scratched earlier Saturday, meaning Dunkirk would be without a defacto teammate.
Turns out, he didnt really need one not with Caseys On Call setting nice early fractions, setting up Dunkirks charge.
Our horse ran real well, Pletcher said.
In the end, Quality Road was just too much, and Pletcher wasnt thrilled with the speedy Gulfstream surface, saying afterward he would have considered running in the Wood Memorial if hed known the track in South Florida would be so quick.
This horse has made huge strides in a short period of time, Pletcher said.
It took about $165,000 in graded stakes earnings to get into last years Run for the Roses Dunkirk now only has $150,000 in that department, meaning hes squarely on the Kentucky Derby bubble. He could have gone elsewhere, the Wood or the Illinois Derby, and faced perhaps a lesser foe than Quality Road, but Pletcher made the call to stay at Gulfstream.
The waiting game starts now for Dunkirk.
Were going to stick to our plan, he said. If it works out and we get in, thats fine. If we dont, then we go on to the next step.
Even the race immediately preceding the Florida Derby was tinged, aptly, with big drama.
The Grade 2, $150,000 Swale Stakes for 3-year-olds went to This Ones for Phil, who was placed first after Big Drama who crossed the line in a track record for seven furlongs, 1:20.88, about a quarter-second faster than the mark set by Exclusive Quality in March 2006 was disqualified after bumping his closest rival twice in the stretch run.
What I saw was a new track record and I got taken down, said David Fawkes, Big Dramas trainer. Should he have stayed up? I dont know. I have to watch it again.
Stewards reviewed the finish for several minutes before determining that Big Drama impeded This Ones for Phil enough to alter the finish. Replays showed that Big Drama, who was nearest to the rail, did veer out twice, the second time coming at the finish line.
This Ones for Phil returned $5.20, $3 and $2.40. Big Drama paid $3 and $2.20. Custom for Carlos paid $2.80 to show, finishing about 4½ lengths behind the two leaders.
But the day belonged to Quality Road.
He wasnt even originally nominated for the Triple Crown series, a paperwork oversight by Jerkens. Then Quality Road won the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, and now is one win away from following the path set by Barbaro in 2006 and Big Brown last year win the Florida Derby, then win the Kentucky Derby five weeks later.
Everything has to work out that day, Velazquez said. Now he has to step up that day in Kentucky. Hes done everything right to this point. Hes shown how good he is.