03/21/2010 11:00PM

Eskendereya's stock rises

Bob Coglianese
Ice Box (8) and Pleasant Prince, both badly beaten by Eskendereya in the Fountain of Youth, were noses apart as the one-two finishers in the Florida Derby.

NEW YORK - The strong first impression of Saturday's Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park was that it gave a huge boost to Eskendereya. After all, Ice Box and Pleasant Prince, who ran right past favored Rule in deep stretch to finish one-two, just a nose apart, had both been absolutely crushed by Eskendereya in last month's Fountain of Youth Stakes.

Eskendereya would have been a heavy favorite in the Florida Derby but was withdrawn the middle of last week when his owner (rightly, I believe) decided he wanted a final Triple Crown prep closer to the Kentucky Derby than six weeks out. Eskendereya was re-routed to Aqueduct's Wood Memorial, which precedes the Derby by four weeks. This year, the Florida Derby was moved six weeks out from the Kentucky Derby. Why the Florida Derby was moved is a question considering the race was working perfectly five weeks out, producing two of the last four Kentucky Derby winners - Barbaro in 2006 and Big Brown in 2008. It was kind of amusing that in the wake of the Florida Derby result the real winner seemed to be the horse who was the notable late defection.

After having some time to think about it, I can't find any reason to change my initial thoughts on the Florida Derby. Despite the fact that he was seeking his fifth straight victory, there were questions about Rule going into the race, primarily whether he was a need-the-lead type and a true nine-furlong horse. Those questions remain. While Rule deserves some credit for being around at the finish after contesting a strong early pace, he was on fumes when Ice Box and Pleasant Prince blew past him. The big finishes of those two look a little less impressive when you factor in the uninspiring 13.10 seconds for the final furlong, and the final time of 1:49.19 was .13 of a second slower than the 3-year-old filly Devil May Care needed to win the Bonnie Miss Stakes four races earlier on the card.

Yes, Ice Box did have a little bit of a trip when fifth, beaten 12 lengths, in the Fountain of Youth (for the record, Pleasant Prince finished fourth in the Fountain of Youth, beaten 10 1/4 lengths), and he is trained by a man in Nick Zito who knows a thing or two about winning the Kentucky Derby. Those factors likely played a part in Ice Box's lower price in the more telling multirace exotic pools than the 20-1 he was in the win pool. But that doesn't change the fact that Ice Box and Pleasant Prince weren't in the same league with Eskendereya last month. Sure, as young 3-year-olds, they are eligible to improve, but so is Eskendereya. The only way Ice Box and Pleasant Prince are catching up to Eskendereya by Kentucky Derby time is if something unfortunate happens to Eskendereya. Anticipating the worst is not, however, a useful handicapping angle.

There were some other stakes on Saturday worth noting:

* At the risk of sounding like a redboarder, how did Devil May Care pay $16.20 after winning the Bonnie Miss? Her first start this year, a distant fifth at odds-on in the Silverbulletday, was a throw-out because she acted up at the gate. Her dull, if troubled, outing two starts back in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies was also a throw-out because it was on synthetic. She won her only other two starts before that, including the Frizette in a performance that made her a popular alternative Breeders' Cup pick. That said, Amen Hallelujah, the filly who was overpowered in the stretch of the Bonnie Miss although easily second best, just doesn't seem at her best going two turns at.

* The best 3-year-old filly in the country Saturday was Hot Dixie Chick, who just might be the best 3-year-old filly in the country, period. Hot Dixie Chick was certainly the best 2-year-old dirt filly in the nation last year when she won the Spinaway and Schuylerville, and she returned Saturday in similarly dominating form, running off with Oaklawn Park's Prima Donna Stakes. Hot Dixie Chick has yet to go two turns because she was put away after the Spinaway in early September, before she had any real opportunity to go long. But just because she is very fast doesn't mean that she won't go on.

* The U.S. debut for Venezuelan sensation Bambera was virtually over at the start when she stumbled badly coming out of the gate as the strong second choice in Saturday's Rampart Stakes at Gulfstream. Nevertheless, with the way she packed it in after only a mild move down the backstretch to finish a distant last of eight, it's difficult taking Bambera's imposing foreign past performances seriously.

* Maybe Bourbon Bay just has an extreme affinity for Santa Anita's turf course. Or maybe Bourbon Bay is merely victimizing a weak Southern California marathon turf division. But I think there is more going on here, and Bourbon Bay just might be turning into a serious horse. His victory in Saturday's San Luis Rey Handicap at Santa Anita was his third straight (all at 1 1/2 miles), and the best of the bunch because while he again dominated, he did so after attending a pace that was downright fast given the distance.