03/28/2008 11:00PM

Dash is on for graded-stakes cash

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Bob Coglianese
Elysium Fields is looking to add to the $70,000 he picked up for finishing second in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The $1 million Florida Derby is unquestionably one of the country's historic and important 3-year-old races. But prestige, notoriety, or even a Grade 1 win are not the primary reasons a dozen 3-year-olds will assemble at Gulfstream Park for Saturday's 57th running of the Florida Derby. This year's edition is all about the money - the graded money that several leading contenders need to assure themselves a starting position in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

The 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby has been carded as the 10th event on an outstanding 12-race program that includes the Grade 2 Bonnie Miss Stakes, Grade 2 Shirley Jones Handicap, and Grade 3 Palm Beach Stakes. The Florida Derby will be televised live on ESPN2 with post time scheduled for 5:45 p.m. Eastern.

Of the 12 horses entered, only Grade 1 Hopeful winner Majestic Warrior seems assured of having enough graded money in the bank to get into the Kentucky Derby, which is limited to 20 horses based on graded earnings. Big Brown and Hey Byrn, two of the three favorites here Saturday, have no graded earnings, while the $70,000 that Elysium Fields picked up for finishing second in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth will likely not be enough to make the Kentucky Derby cut.

Adding to the intrigue is the fact most of the leading contenders will have to overcome a difficult post position, none more so than Big Brown, who breaks from the outside in post 12. No horse has ever won a 1 1/8-mile race over Gulfstream's main track from post 11 or 12 since the course was reconfigured and lengthened to 1 1/8 miles in 2005. Barbaro registered a narrow victory in the 2006 Florida Derby after breaking from post 10.

Despite the obvious disadvantage he faces out of the gate, Big Brown will likely walk into post 12 as the public's choice - a public that has been wowed by his two previous performances, including a sensational 12 3/4-length entry-level allowance victory in his 3-year-old debut here March 5. Big Brown, a son of Boundary, launched his career with an equally spectacular 11 1/4-length triumph last summer over the turf at Saratoga.

IEAH stables purchased a majority interest in Big Brown from Paul Pompa Jr. following his maiden win and turned the horse over to trainer Rick Dutrow Jr., who is the colt's No. 1 fan. And while perhaps inwardly concerned, Dutrow chose to view the glass as half-full when talking about his colt's unlucky post-position draw.

"I think it's going to be to our advantage," Dutrow said immediately after the draw. "As long as he breaks good, it eliminates any chance of him getting into trouble."

Elysium Fields is one of three potential Kentucky Derby candidates from trainer Barclay Tagg's barn, along with Tale of Ekati and Big Truck. The addition of blinkers earlier this winter has helped put the son of El Prado into his races earlier, as was the case in the Fountain of Youth when he finished second behind Cool Coal Man.

"He's the perfect type for the Triple Crown," Tagg said of Elysium Fields. "He's got the breeding, size, strength, and the way he moves gives him all the attributes for Triple Crown races."

Hey Byrn also has come into his own at 3. A son of Put It Back trained by Eddie Plesa Jr., Hey Byrn won two allowance races this winter by an average margin of more than 10 lengths. Hey Byrn will break from post 9.

Majestic Warrior rose to the top of the 2-year-old division last summer after his impressive victory in the Hopeful, but was forced to the sidelines by foot issues following a disappointing performance in the Champagne. Bill Mott is looking for Majestic Warrior to improve off his 3-year-old debut, a seventh-place finish in the Louisiana Derby, although he too will be forced to break from a very tough post (10).

Fierce Wind and Smooth Air, first and third in the Sam Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, should benefit from breaking from posts 1 and 2. Fierce Wind is one of two horses trainer Nick Zito will saddle in the Florida Derby, along with D'Tara.

Smooth Air, who picked up $90,000 in graded earnings by winning the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes here early this winter, is trained by 70-year-old Benny Stutts who said, "Having a horse like this is making me young again."

Tomcito is the mystery horse in the field, making both his 3-year-old and U.S. debut after winning important races going 1 1/4 miles and 1 1/2 miles in his native Peru at 2.