04/04/2011 9:26AM

Dialed In and the Florida Derby

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Sunday’s Florida Derby at Gulfstream, narrowly won by Dialed In, was a good news, bad news affair that raised as many questions as it answered. First, the good news:

Dialed In proved that he can be effective around two turns when he gets a realistic early pace to set up his late run. So Dialed In has something to look forward to as he heads off to Louisville, because you know he’ll get a good pace to rally into in the Kentucky Derby. And Dialed In managed to get up Sunday from well off the pace over a track on which it seemed the closer you were to the lead, the better off you were. While Churchill Downs has had issues with a dead rail on recent big race days – the rail was no place to be on both Breeders’ Cup Days there last fall, and the rail was bad at least for the first half of the 2010 Derby card – closers like Dialed In usually never have to fight an overt speed bias at Churchill.

There is, however, some less-than-pleasant news for Dialed in coming out of the Florida Derby. The final furlong of the Florida Derby was run in a slow 13.75 seconds, meaning Dialed In had virtually all day to get his head up on the wire. The Florida Derby was assigned a preliminary winning Beyer Figure of only 93, which is profoundly mediocre. This means that Dialed In will go into the Kentucky Derby without having yet earned a triple digit Beyer. That would have been a real negative in the not-so-old days, but three of the last six winners of the Kentucky Derby did not earn a triple digit Beyer beforehand. The problem for Dialed In is those three Derby winners were Giacomo, Mine That Bird, and Super Saver. Giacomo and Mine That Bird were implausible 50-1 shots, and Super Saver’s Derby win last year is, in retrospect, viewed as a wet track fluke.

But the real cause for pause in Dialed In’s Florida Derby is that none of his primary opponents performed the way they were expected to. Flashpoint, the wickedly fast sprinter who looked like a mortal lock to set the pace, didn’t break on the button, then broke outward, and didn’t make the lead. Under the circumstances, he actually ran okay finishing fourth, even if he was beaten eight lengths.

To Honor and Serve, who was expected to return to his outstanding 2-year-old form in his second start of the year, fell into a good trip pressing the pace. But just as he did in the Fountain of Youth in February, he came up completely empty in the stretch to finish a soundly beaten third. Instead of merely failing to progress from 2 to 3, it now looks like To Honor and Serve might have taken a giant step backward.

Soldat, who enjoyed sweet, front-running trips when he won his two starts this year, including the Fountain of Youth, had to come from off the pace Sunday. Considering the way he ran from off the pace last year, Soldat should have lost nothing in the way of effectiveness with the style switch in the Florida Derby. But he never seriously threatened, checking in fifth.

And Stay Thirsty, while he beat little when he won the Gotham in his first start of the year, had a right to take a big step forward second start back with blinkers on. He also never threatened, finishing a distant seventh.

With all of these horses firing blanks, and a couple of others (Arch Traveler and Bowman’s Causeway) declining to get involved, that left Dialed In to deal only with Shackleford. Shackleford was the longest shot on the board at 68-1 because he was beaten 23 ½ lengths last time out in the Fountain of Youth. Shackleford inherited pace setting duties Sunday, and he fell about one jump shy of holding Dialed In off. But that an unheralded colt like Shackleford forced Dialed In to work as hard as he could, well, that says something, too.