03/30/2006 12:00AM

Barbaro still has much to prove

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Bill Denver / EQUI-PHOTOS
Lightly raced Barbaro heads Florida Derby.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - There will be Kentucky Derby fever in the air and $1 million on the table when 11 3-year-olds go 1 1/8 miles in Saturday's 55th running of the Grade 1 at Gulfstream Park. The Florida Derby is the richest of the Kentucky Derby preps in the United States and the highlight of an outstanding 13-race program, which includes six other stakes.

Barbaro, the 8-5 choice on the morning line, is unquestionably the horse to beat to get the big payday. But many believe Barbaro is far from unbeatable, as questions about his ability to handle a fast racetrack and a difficult post position make him potentially vulnerable at a short price.

"Barbaro is a good horse, but this is a huge step, and we'll see if he really handles a fast track like he does the turf or slop," said trainer Nick Zito, who won the 2005 Florida Derby with High Fly and runs two in Saturday's race. "There certainly are some questions he still has to answer."

Owned by the Lael Stables and trained Michael Matz, Barbaro has registered four victories in as many starts. But three of those wins came on grass, and the fourth over a sloppy track in the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes here on Feb. 4. He also has not started since the Holy Bull, an eight-week layoff that Matz felt would prove to be in the best interests of Barbaro in the long run.

"Everybody seems to have questions about this or that, but he's worked fine and done everything we've asked of him coming up to the race," said Matz. "He couldn't be better."

Matz was a bit concerned about drawing post 10 in the 11-horse field, but believes that Barbaro has enough tactical speed to overcome the disadvantage.

"It's a short run to the first turn, but he should be able to put himself in a good spot right behind Sharp Humor, who figures to set the pace," said Matz. "Naturally I'd like to be closer to the inside, but it shouldn't be a problem."

Edgar Prado, who has been aboard Barbaro in each of his last two starts, will again have the assignment.

Sharp Humor, Flashy Bull, or Sunriver may have the best chance of pulling off the upset should Barbaro not be up to the task.

Sharp Humor has won each of his last three starts, including the Grade 2 Swale Stakes going seven furlongs here on March 4. The Florida Derby will mark the New York-bred Sharp Humor's first start beyond a mile or around two turns, but trainer Dale Romans is confident Sharp Humor will have no problem with the added ground.

"The pedigree says he should handle the distance, and he trains like it, too," said Romans.

Flashy Bull has been in the spotlight since finishing second behind Bluegrass Cat in the Grade 2 Remsen in his 2-year-old finale. He was beaten nearly four lengths by Barbaro after a wide trip in the Holy Bull, but bounced back to finish second via the disqualification of Corinthian in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes four weeks later.

Sunriver, Ashado's baby brother, is one of two horses trainer Todd Pletcher will run in the Florida Derby, along with Saint Augustus. Each is coming into the race off a career-best effort, both having won a 1 1/8-mile allowance race earlier in the meet.

"Both horses have shown signs they've got quality and talent, but both will have to move forward to beat this field," said Pletcher. "Sunriver's only poor race was in the slop in the Holy Bull, and the track was such a mess that day I just toss it out. And Saint Augustus really seemed to get back on track when he won that allowance race."

Zito came into the 2005 Florida Derby with favorites High Fly and Noble Causeway. This year, the two-time Kentucky Derby winner is on the opposite end of the spectrum, hoping to beat the favorite with outsiders Doc Cheney and Hesanoldsalt.

"In a way it will be easier on me this year being the underdog, because there is no pressure," said Zito. "It's a small line from here when looking ahead to the Kentucky Derby. Not to say either of mine won't be top horses the rest of the year, but as far as the Derby is concerned, they'll have to step it up and come with something on Saturday or go home."

The field

Florida Derby
Purse: $1 million; 1 1/8 miles; Grade 1

PPHORSEJOCKEYODDS
1 HesanoldsaltE. Castro20-1
2 Flashy BullR. Bejarano4-1
3Saint AugustusC. DeCarlo12-1
4Doc CheneyJ. Rose12-1
5SunriverJ. Velazquez6-1
6RehobothJ. Castellano20-1
7Sharp HumorM. Guidry5-1
8High BluesC. Velasquez10-1
9Charming ImageR. Maragh20-1
10BarbaroE. Prado8-5
11Sam's AceF. Martinez20-1

* All starters carry 122 pounds
* Track odds
* Television: 5 p.m. (Eastern), USA Network