03/26/2009 12:00AM

Dunkirk's dash for cash

Bob Coglianese
Dunkirk wins his maiden in his first start Jan. 24 at Gulfstream. The colt will make his stakes debut in Saturday's Florida Derby.

Money can't get everything, it's true, but it can get you a spot in the Kentucky Derby. For the connections of Dunkirk, that's all they want.

A berth in the Derby will be on the line for Dunkirk on Saturday, when the unbeaten colt competes in the Grade 1, $750,000 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. Because he has yet to earn a penny in a graded stakes, and because the Florida Derby is scheduled to be his final race before the Kentucky Derby, the money Dunkirk makes Saturday will be paramount as to whether he is in the starting gate May 2 at Churchill Downs.

The Derby field is capped at 20, and more than ever it seems there are owners who run horses in the race because they can, not because they should. If more than 20 enter, graded stakes earnings determine the starting field. This year, that process is further complicated by the Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes, which guaranteed a spot to the winner, the British runner Mafaaz, leaving 19 precious spots.

This is not the first go-round for those connected to Dunkirk. Michael Tabor, who owns Dunkirk with Susan Magnier and Derrick Smith, won the Derby with Thunder Gulch in 1995. Magnier and Smith have had Derby runners, too. So has Dunkirk's trainer, Todd Pletcher. They want to be in the race, if they belong. But they have just one shot to make it with Dunkirk.

A win in the Florida Derby is worth $450,000, which would easily put Dunkirk in the starting field. After that, it's dicey. Second place is worth $150,000, which would put Dunkirk on the bubble. But there would be five long weeks remaining for horses below him to run in other preps and potentially leapfrog past him.

Pletcher said, at this point, the Florida Derby is being looked at as the final start for Dunkirk before the Derby. There's no margin for error.

"If he doesn't get in, we'll have to live with it and look at the Preakness or something else," Pletcher said on a national teleconference this week.

Cold, hard cash has been at the forefront of Dunkirk's life. He was the most expensive yearling purchased at auction in 2007, when bloodstock agent Demi O'Byrne went to $3.7 million on behalf of owners Magnier, Smith, and Tabor at the Keeneland September sale. Pletcher said he thought Dunkirk, a colt by Unbridled's Song out of 2000 Kentucky Oaks winner Secret Status, was "a beautiful yearling," but he said O'Byrne and the owners deserve the credit for selecting Dunkirk.

"I take no credit for picking him out as a yearling," Pletcher said.

Pletcher has had a number of expensive auction buys and impeccably bred horses in his care in the years he has trained.

"You try to do just as good a job with them, not do anything different," Pletcher said. "You can't be intimidated by the price tag. If you are, you won't do what you're supposed to do."

Dunkirk began training for Pletcher about a year ago, when Pletcher was based at Palm Beach Downs in Florida. Dunkirk then trained at Keeneland and Belmont Park and was up to workouts as far as a half-mile. But then he needed, and got, time off.

"He got a little bit of a shin, and he had pedigree to go longer. He acted like he wanted to go longer," Pletcher said. "I was under no pressure to make things happen sooner than they were going to happen. We decided to take the long term."

As a result, though, Dunkirk failed to race at age 2. No horse has won the Kentucky Derby without racing at 2 since Apollo in 1882.

"I've been saying for years that these trends are changing," Pletcher said. "Training has changed. People are not running their horses as frequently at this kind of level as they were 15 or 20 years ago. We took the conservative route with a very nice horse. We did exactly what was right for the horse."

When Dunkirk returned to serious training, Pletcher said Dunkirk "got my attention literally his first breeze at Palm Meadows" last fall.

"He showed a tremendous amount of talent," Pletcher said. "Not the time, but the manner and fashion in which he was breezing."

Dunkirk finally made his debut Jan. 24 at Gulfstream Park. After breaking poorly in the seven-furlong maiden race, he swooped past the field and won by 5 3/4 lengths.

"I thought he got the education of three races," Pletcher said. "He didn't get out great, was inside, didn't mind the dirt in his face, came through traffic on the turn. That helped the situation moving forward."

Dunkirk's next and only other start came in a 1 1/8-mile allowance race Feb. 19. Though the field was strong on paper, Dunkirk again romped, this time overcoming a wide trip to win by 4 3/4 lengths.

That's it. Two starts, two wins. And now Dunkirk leaps into the Florida Derby. It's a big jump in theory, but Pletcher believes it's the right move.

"We're asking him an appropriate question for what he has shown us to this time," Pletcher said. "We're asking a lot, but it's nothing that doesn't make sense. We're asking a lot of him only because of what he's shown us."

In other Derby developments:

* Nine were entered Wednesday in the Florida Derby, with Dunkirk landing post 4.

* Negotiations are still continuing to sell 50 percent of I Want Revenge, but no deal has yet been struck, according to David Lanzman, the colt's current owner. IEAH co-president Michael Iavarone confirmed last weekend that his outfit was involved in the negotiations. On Sunday, when I Want Revenge worked at Hollywood Park, several IEAH representatives, including former jockey Gary Stevens, were in attendance. Iavarone is in Dubai this week, where turf star Kip Deville is competing Saturday.

* Square Eddie, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up, had his first work since being injured in January over the weekend, and trainer Doug O'Neill said an attempt will be made to make the Derby, improbable as that seems.

* Desert Party is expected to be the favorite Saturday night in Dubai in the $2 million UAE Derby, which drew a field of 13.

* Also this weekend is Sunday's $800,000 Sunland Derby, which offers plenty of purse money but lured no serious Derby contenders because it is not a graded stakes race.

* Saturday night is the deadline for late nominations to the Triple Crown, at a cost of $6,000. Musket Man, Quality Road, and Win Willy were not nominated for $600 in January and are expected to be among the handful of late nominees.

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen



Hold Me Back, winner of the Lane's End Stakes last Saturday at Turfway Park, and Mafaaz, who earned a berth in Kentucky Derby by winning the Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes last week at Kempton Park near London, are the newest additions to the top 20 of Derby Watch. Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper, installed Hold Me Back as a 30-1 shot on his future-book line, with Mafaaz at 50-1.


Beethoven is off the Derby trail after being injured this week at Gulfstream Park. West Side Bernie is the other defection from the list, following his poor effort in the Lane's End.


Big Drama is running in the Swale Stakes on Saturday at Gulfstream, and though his connections recently stated he is not under consideration for the Derby - he was even pulled from Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager - he has enough graded stakes earnings to get into the Derby if his connections have a change of heart should he run well in the Swale. Square Eddie, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up, also is back in the picture, since his connections now say they will try to make the Derby with a colt who suffered an injury in January and has had one published work since.

- Jay Privman