03/29/2007 12:00AM

A chance to grab the spotlight

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The $1 million Florida Derby took center stage last spring among all the Kentucky Derby preps with the emergence of Barbaro, who used his victory in Gulfstream Park's marquee event as a stepping-stone to his magnificence performance at Churchill Downs five weeks later.

Whether there is another Barbaro among the nine 3-year-olds entered for this year's edition of the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby remains to be seen. But there certainly is enough talent in the field - led by Scat Daddy, Stormello, Notional, and Adore the Gold - to believe Saturday's 56th edition of the Grade 1 Florida Derby will again propel one or more major contenders forward to the Kentucky Derby.

The Florida Derby will be run as the 11th event on a 12-race program that includes four other stakes. Post time is noon with the main event scheduled for 5:30 Eastern.

The Florida Derby will see a rematch of three of the top four finishers from the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, decided here four weeks ago. Scat Daddy overcame a wide trip to run down a game Stormello by a nose to win the Fountain of Youth, with Adore the Gold finishing a length farther back in fourth after pressing the pace.

Scat Daddy may be one of the least respected horses in trainer Todd Pletcher's large arsenal of Kentucky Derby prospects despite having won 4 of 7 starts, including the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes. He also owns a pair of decisions over the highly regarded Kentucky Derby hopeful Nobiz Like Shobiz, whom he defeated in the Champagne and again in the Fountain of Youth.

"I don't think Scat Daddy ever got the respect he deserved for winning the Champagne, but he's now beaten Nobiz Like Shobiz twice," Pletcher said. "And his victory in the Fountain of Youth should lay to rest the notion he couldn't get two turns. At least that's what everybody else thought, although I never questioned he could do it."

Pletcher has targeted the Florida Derby all winter for Scat Daddy, noting the five weeks between this race and the Kentucky Derby is perfect for a horse who seems to flourish with extra time between starts.

"He only had three weeks between the Champagne and the Breeders' Cup, and I really thought it compromised his chances that day," said Pletcher of Scat Daddy's fourth-place finish behind Street Sense in the Juvenile.

Neither Pletcher nor jockey John Velazquez will be on hand for the Florida Derby, which will start several hours after they finish competing in several events on Saturday's Dubai World Cup program. Edgar Prado will replace Velazquez on Scat Daddy.

Stormello is returning to south Florida in an attempt to avenge his narrow setback at the hands of Scat Daddy in the Fountain of Youth. Stormello set all the fractions while under pressure from Adore the Gold in the Fountain of Youth before succumbing grudgingly to the winner in the final strides.

"He liked the track, and I think this is a similar bunch as the last time," said Currin, whose alternative was to stay in Southern California for likely a softer spot in next week's Santa Anita Derby.

"We have one objective, to win the Kentucky Derby," said Currin, "and you can't do that picking soft spots."

Like Pletcher, Currin was forced to make a jockey change, with his regular rider Kent Desormeaux also in Dubai on Saturday. He has tabbed Victor Espinoza for the assignment.

Notional joined fellow West Coaster Stormello on a cross-country flight that arrived in south Florida late Thursday morning. Notional, one of a bevy of Kentucky Derby prospects from the barn of trainer Doug O'Neill, enters the Florida Derby off victories in the Grade 2 San Rafael and Grade 3 Risen Star stakes earlier this year. Robby Albarado, who guided Notional to a convincing 2o1/4-length triumph in the Risen Star, will again have the mount.

"The timing of this race is perfect, Robby's had the benefit of already riding him once, and the addition of blinkers in the San Rafael has made him much more versatile and easier to position in his races," said O'Neill.

Adore the Gold could not quite overcome the tough outside post in the Fountain of Youth but ran a game race nonetheless. He stalked Stormello's pace to late stretch and gradually weakened. He is better drawn this time around, breaking from post 4 under his new rider, Cornelio Velasquez.

Trainer Michael Matz will attempt to defend his Florida Derby title with Chelokee, an impressive allowance winner on the Fountain of Youth undercard, who will be making his stakes debut Saturday.

Birdbirdistheword will attempt to improve on his fifth-place finish in his 3-year-old debut, the Louisiana Derby.

Trainer Nick Zito, who won the 2005 Florida Derby with High Fly, will seek to pull off a major upset with the lightly raced but improving Boogie Boggs.