04/01/2006 1:00AM

Barbaro digs in, stays perfect

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Ryan McAlinden/EQUI-PHOTO
Barbaro defeats Sharp Humor by a half-length in Saturday's Grade 1 Florida Derby. He will now move on to Louisville undefeated.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Barbaro answered the question about his ability to handle a fast track and will head into the Kentucky Derby undefeated after outfinishing a game Sharp Humor to post a hard-fought half-length victory in Saturday's $1 million at Gulfstream Park.

Barbaro entered the Grade 1 Florida Derby with four victories in as many starts, three of which came on turf and the fourth over a sloppy track in the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes here on Feb. 4. Trainer Michael Matz opted to pass the Fountain of Youth and give his star eight weeks off to have a fresh horse for the Florida Derby and, later, the Kentucky Derby.

Jockey Edgar Prado immediately put the favored Barbaro in perfect striking position on Saturday, despite breaking from post 10 in a field of 11 3-year-olds. Barbaro stalked the pace of Sharp Humor before challenging for command near the quarter pole and gaining a short advantage entering the stretch. Sharp Humor fought back willingly from the inside once headed by Barbaro before finally succumbing in the closing yards.

Sunriver raced wide around both turns, moved to within striking distance after fanning five wide into the stretch, then finished evenly to be third, three lengths behind Sharp Humor. They were followed by Sam's Ace, Hesanoldsalt, High Blues, Flashy Bull, Charming Image, Saint Augustus, Doc Cheney, and Rehoboth.

Barbaro, a son of Dynaformer owned by the Lael Stable, paid $5.20. He covered the 1 1/8-mile distance in 1:49.01 over a fast track before a Gulfstream crowd of 11,990.

"I know a lot of people had questions about him, but I believed he's a good horse who had done everything anyone's asked him to do," said Matz. "He acted a little green today when he got the lead, but I think he should gain a lot of confidence from this race."

Matz said he would likely keep Barbaro at Palm Meadows for a couple of weeks and ship first to Keeneland, then on to Churchill Downs a week before the Derby.

Trainer Dale Romans was delighted with the performance of Sharp Humor even in defeat.

"He ran hard and we're going [to the Derby]," said Romans. "I am a little disappointed because he ran so hard, ran a winning race, and got beat, but I'm very pleased with his first effort at two turns."

Trainer Todd Pletcher also felt Sunriver gave a good account of himself despite finishing third.

"He was hung wide around the first turn and lost about six lengths coming wide into the stretch," Pletcher said, "so considering that, I thought he ran very well."

- additional reporting by Marty McGee