03/31/2011 4:53PM

Florida Derby adds Flashpoint to the mix

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Barbara D. Livingston
Flashpoint, Cornelio Velasquez up, wins the Hutcheson.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – The 2011 Florida Derby, already the deepest of all the Kentucky Derby preps, got even stronger on Thursday after trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. and owner John Fort decided to add the undefeated speedster Flashpoint to the mix.

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Aside from Flashpoint, Sunday’s $1 million Florida Derby will also feature four of the top nine 3-year-olds on this week’s Derby Watch list: Soldat, Dialed In, To Honor and Serve, and Stay Thirsty. The remainder of the eight horse lineup includes outsiders Arch Traveler, Bowman’s Causeway, and Shackleford.

The 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby is the only graded stakes race for 3-year-olds this weekend. It is back at a position that has proved popular for the race in recent years, five weeks out from the May 7 Kentucky Derby.

The Florida Derby used to be run earlier in the meet, and oftentimes was used as a prep toward the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. There was great controversy when the race was moved to five weeks out from the Derby in 2006, but when Barbaro won the Florida Derby and then the Kentucky Derby that year, followed by Big Brown pulling off the same parlay in 2008, the debate ended.

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Last year, the Florida Derby was moved to six weeks out from the Kentucky Derby, and although Ice Box won the race and went on to finish second in the Kentucky Derby, the race lacked the star power of recent years.

That has certainly changed this year. Gulfstream’s management again moved the race back to five weeks in front of the Kentucky Derby, and the Florida Derby drew its strongest field in years. In addition, by positioning the race on Sunday instead of Saturday, the Florida Derby will avoid live conflicts with the NCAA Final Four games played on Saturday.

The addition of Flashpoint, an easy winner of his only two previous starts including a dominant 7 1/4-length triumph in the seven furlong, Grade 2 Hutcheson five weeks ago, to the Florida Derby lineup certainly changes the complexion of the race. Despite drawing outside in post position 8, Flashpoint is expected to set a realistic pace, with his presence likely to alter the strategies of several other members of the field, most notably Soldat, who was made the 9-5 morning line favorite by the track’s linemaker, Chuck Streva.

“This is one of the oldest and most traditional races in the country, and I think Flashpoint definitely fits and adds to the excitement of the race,” said Fort when asked to explain his decision to go in the Florida Derby rather than Sunday’s seven-furlong Swale in which he’d be an odds on favorite. “You only get so many chances in life to really step up, and the more I thought about the Swale, we’d just done that. We have a chance to get a pace scenario here that’s favorable to Flashpoint and if we wanted to go for a Grade 1 race with a $1 million purse, what better opportunity than the Florida Derby.”

As was the case in the Fountain of Youth, when he led from gate to wire, Soldat again drew the rail for the Florida Derby, and the presence of Flashpoint will likely dictate a different strategy on Sunday.

“We’ll let Flashpoint clear off,” said Soldat’s trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. “We won from the one post in the Fountain of Youth, and he’ll definitely be able to save ground. That’s a positive. Hopefully he won’t get jammed up down on the inside, but I think everything should work out all right.”

One trainer glad to see Flashpoint in the lineup is Nick Zito, who trains the stretch-running Holy Bull winner, Dialed In, who will break from post 7.

“Having Flashpoint in there certainly doesn’t hurt our chances,” said Zito. “I’d have preferred to have been inside, but we’ll just have to make a left turn after the start and make sure Flashpoint clears off.”

Gotham winner Stay Thirsty will race with blinkers for the first time in the Florida Derby, with trainer Todd Pletcher needing permission from the track stewards to make the equipment change coming off a victory in his last start.

Pletcher, who also trains current Kentucky Derby favorite Uncle Mo for owner Mike Repole, is the first to admit this year’s Florida Derby is coming up a good one even without his best horse in the lineup.

“I think this is the toughest Derby prep they’ve had so far,” said Pletcher.

– additional reporting by Jay Privman and David Grening