Updated on 09/16/2011 8:00AM

Bringing order to chaos

Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Assistant Helen Pitts gallops Harlan's Holiday on Thursday.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Talk about your March Madness. Here it is, seven weeks until the first Saturday in May, and the unwieldy nature of the 2002 Kentucky Derby picture is daring to make the NCAA basketball tournament look as wild and disorderly as Martha Stewart's living room.

The Grade 1 , which long has separated contenders from pretenders along the Kentucky Derby trail, purports to bring some clarity to the situation. The 51st running of the Florida Derby will be held Saturday before an expected crowd of some 35,000 at Gulfstream Park and a live television audience, and soon after the 11 3-year-olds cross the finish line, the Kentucky Derby picture may finally be a little more focused.

Much of the pre-race speculation on the 1 1/8-mile, $1 million Florida Derby has centered on the two colts who have fared the best this winter at Gulfstream: Booklet and Harlan's Holiday. As the one-two finishers in the Jan. 19 Holy Bull and Feb. 16 Fountain of Youth Stakes, their claim to being a cut above the rest of this year's south Florida crop of 3-year-olds is deserved, although rather tenuous.

Booklet and Harlan's Holiday are expected to be the wagering choices in the Florida Derby, which will be broadcast on ESPN on a one-hour show beginning at 5 p.m. Eastern (post time, 5:40). But they certainly will not be overwhelming favorites, as a handful of others - including Nokoma, High Star, and Blue Burner - figure to attract significant backing as well.

"We've got to make up a number of lengths on those two," said trainer Todd Pletcher, speaking not only of Nokoma, whom he will saddle as part of a Michael Tabor entry, but also for most of the rest of the field. "But that's why we're in here. I think my colt is training as well as he can. He should be very competitive if he runs the way he's been training."

Unlike in the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth, in which Booklet was allowed to set his own pace before bravely holding off a charging Harlan's Holiday, there figures to be some early company for Booklet in the Florida Derby. Smooth Jazz, the other half of the Tabor and Pletcher entry, will be making his first start around two turns after having shown high speed in winning the six-furlong Best Turn at Aqueduct in his last start.

While the prospect of a fast pace does not worry John Ward Jr., who trains Booklet for John Oxley, it encourages the connections of Harlan's Holiday. Ken McPeek, who trains the Ohio-bred Harlan's Holiday for Jack and Laurie Wolf, predicted flatly at the Wednesday post-position draw: "We're going to get him this time."

Whatever Harlan's Holiday accomplishes Saturday, it will be with a new rider. Edgar Prado, one of the rising stars among North American jockeys, replaces Tony D'Amico aboard the colt, a move that McPeek hopes will make a difference in what has become an exciting rivalry.

"We're looking for every edge we can get," said McPeek. "There's a whole lot of money on the table, and we don't want to leave any of it."

Gulfstream officials have done their best to promote the Booklet-Harlan's Holiday rematch as a race within the race, but many seasoned horseplayers are skeptical that the Florida Derby is a two-horse race. When searching for alternatives Saturday, they probably will give long looks to more mutuel-friendly runners such as the Tabor entry or High Star or Blue Burner.

Trainer Nick Zito calls High Star a courageous colt, one with the makeup to improve at just the right time.

"We certainly want to get to the Kentucky Derby with him," said Zito.

Blue Burner, third in the Fountain of Youth, also has the credentials to move up Saturday. He is trained by Bill Mott and ridden by Jerry Bailey, a Hall of Fame combination that seldom is taken lightly by serious fans.

Others in the field are Monthir, D'Coach, Peekskill, Puck, and Personal Reward. All carry 122 pounds under scale-weight conditions.

The Florida Derby is carded as the 12th of 13 races on a card that also includes three other stakes, including the $150,000 Swale Stakes. First post is noon.