03/27/2013 12:34PM

Dick Jerardi: Florida Derby needs old college try

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Barbara D. Livingston
On the numbers, Itsmyluckyday, who outran Shanghai Bobby (right) in the Holy Bull, is definitely the horse to beat in the Florida Derby.

While trying to make sense of Saturday’s Florida Derby, I can’t get Florida Gulf Coast University out of my mind. Since I saw the university’s basketball team run two college basketball powers out of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia last weekend, I have been trying to think of something comparable I have seen in horse racing.

What the team from the school – which is not quite 16 years old – did is unprecedented in the history of college basketball. Then, I finally decided on the horse racing version of beating Georgetown and San Diego State. And not just beating them, but crushing their spirits.

It would be like a horse coming from Mountaineer Park, after racing in a series of claiming races, to run away from Orb, Itsmyluckyday, and Shanghai Bobby in the Florida Derby. This was the basketball equivalent of a horse with no pedigree and no past performances of note running out of the television set. It simply could not happen.

[FLORIDA DERBY: Get PPs, watch Saturday's full card live]

More cynically, what would horse racing people think about a team that had lost 10 games, including losses to teams that could not win claiming races at Mountaineer or anywhere else, winning like they won. Was their form being darkened? Nothing, of course, has ever happened like that in horse racing, so forget cynicism.

Unless you were there in the arena, you really could not believe the athleticism that these players, completely anonymous before the weekend, demonstrated. It was like a video game, each dunk and each blind pass more ridiculous than the last. If the Eagles keep playing like that, they actually could beat Florida on Friday and eventually win the national championship in Atlanta. That is how impressive it all was.

So what does that have to do with the Florida Derby, exactly? Nothing, probably, but when you are in the final stages of a five-month basketball chase with visions of getting wealthy at the Kentucky Derby bouncing around your brain, you look for whatever inspiration you can get wherever you can get it.

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

The Florida Derby, hopefully, is going to tell us a lot more than the Spiral and Sunland Derby told us last weekend.

The only thing I learned from those races is what I understood the moment I read Andrew Beyer’s classic “Picking Winners” nearly 40 years ago. Time, without context, means nothing.

Govenor Charlie won the race at Sunland Park and got the 1 1/8-mile distance in 1:47.54, breaking a track record (1:48.20) that had stood since 1961. Was the horse fast or the track surface? It was the surface, definitely the surface.

In fact the surface, was 5.3 seconds (or 49 Beyer points) faster than what we at Beyer Central would call normal. So to get the actual Beyer Speed Figure, 49 points had to be subtracted from the raw figure to arrive at the winner’s figure.

The 95 Beyer reflects Govenor Charlie’s actual performance far better than the time itself. So when the old trainers used to say that time doesn’t matter, they were sort of right. Most of them just did not know why there were right.

I have to like Itsmyluckyday in the Florida Derby. Feel free to make Florida Gulf Coast analogies, but his two races this year, while far better than anything he did in 2012, are hardly unprecedented when horses go from 2 to 3.

Itsmyluckyday had never gotten beyond a figure of 81 as a 2-year-old. Then, he got that 102 in the Gulfstream Park Derby and ran by 2-year-old champion Shanghai Bobby in the Holy Bull to get a 104 Beyer. On the numbers, he is definitely the horse to beat.

I was impressed by Shanghai Bobby’s first defeat. He got a career-best 100 Beyer. I did not get the impression he was giving up. It certainly looked like he was still trying at the finish. Could he have distance limitations? He could, but I am not ready to make that pronouncement before this race.

I want Orb to run well because I want to see Shug McGaughey back at the Derby with a contender. Hard to believe it has been 24 years since Sunday Silence-Easy Goer. Shug has won so many major races since then, but he really has not had the kinds of horses to compete in the Triple Crown. Orb may be the one.

Orb never hit 80 on the Beyer scale as a 2-year-old. He ran that 83 first time out this year, followed by a 97 in the Fountain of Youth. Obviously, he got a pace to run at in the Fountain, but I liked everything about how he ran anyway. If he makes another forward move, he can win Saturday and become one of the Derby favorites.

But none of these horses can be Florida Gulf Coast University. I am still looking for the horse with that kind of form who runs like that when my money is down at 50-1.