03/27/2014 12:39PM

Florida Derby: Cairo Prince targets Kentucky Derby points

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Barbara D. Livingston
Cairo Prince, training last week at Palm Meadows, has only 14 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby going into the Florida Derby.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Cairo Prince was a Grade 2 winner and a nose short of being perfect at 2, and he solidified his position near the top of everyone’s list of leading Kentucky Derby candidates early this winter with a defining victory in the Grade 2 Holy Bull. But for all his imposing credentials, Cairo Prince will enter Saturday’s $1 million Florida Derby not only idle the last nine weeks but in need of another big performance to earn the necessary qualifying points to guarantee a berth in the Kentucky Derby lineup.

Despite not having raced since his 5 3/4-length triumph over Conquest Titan in the Grade 2 Holy Bull on Jan. 25, Cairo Prince will go postward the favorite against seven other 3-year-olds in the Grade 1, 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby. He will face a quality group that includes Wildcat Red and General a Rod, the first- and second-place finishers in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth here last month, a race trainer Kiaran McLaughlin decided to bypass with Cairo Prince. Swale winner Spot and undefeated Constitution are also considered top candidates, with outsiders Matador, East Hall, and Allstar completing the lineup.

[DRF Live: Get live reports and handicapping insights from DRF writers and handicappers this Saturday]

The Florida Derby offers 170 Kentucky Derby qualifying points and is the finale on a 14-race card that is supported by seven other stakes, six of which are graded. First post is noon Eastern, with the Florida Derby to be shown live on the NBC Sports Network at 6:48 p.m.

The Weather Channel is forecasting a 60 percent chance of rain for the local area on Saturday.

Cairo Prince, who has 14 Kentucky Derby qualifying points, has made more news off the track than on since winning the Holy Bull. Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin Racing purchased a majority interest in the colt last month from the original partnership group of Harvey Clarke, Paul Braverman, Terrence Murray, and Craig Robertson III.

McLaughlin said he had mixed emotions about bypassing the Fountain of Youth with Cairo Prince, whose only blemish in four career starts is a nose setback at the hands of Honor Code in the Grade 2 Remsen.

[Florida Derby Day: Get PPs, watch Saturday's card live]

“The weights were an issue in the decision,” McLaughlin said of the Remsen outcome. “We spotted everybody six pounds in both the Remsen and Holy Bull and would have also had to spot them six pounds in the Fountain of Youth.”

All eight starters will carry 122 pounds in the Florida Derby.

“It’s hard to run him every month, although because of the point system used for the Kentucky Derby it certainly was not an ideal situation to skip the Fountain of Youth,” McLaughlin said. “There are also a couple of other issues we have to look at, including not knowing how he’ll handle the wet track if it rains. But he’s doing great, and while fourth would probably give us enough points to get into the Derby, this is an important, Grade 1 race, and we’re expecting much more than that. We’re looking for an A-plus effort on Saturday.”

Cairo Prince will fly the familiar royal blue colors of Godolphin in the Florida Derby, and McLaughlin acknowledged there is additional pressure to training a leading Derby contender for a longtime client.

“I’ve been with the Maktoum family for 20 years and we’ve discussed many times during that period how much it would mean to them to win the Kentucky Derby,” McLaughlin said.

Wildcat Red and General a Rod have split a pair of stakes decisions here this winter. General a Rod rallied to a head victory when the two first met in the Gulfstream Park Derby. Wildcat Red avenged that setback with a head triumph of his own following a near-race-long battle between the two archrivals in the Fountain of Youth.

Wildcat Red, who earned enough points by virtue of his victory in the Fountain of Youth to assure himself a starting berth in the Kentucky Derby, will break from the rail and is expected to set the pace while stretching out to a 1 1/8 miles for the first time in the Florida Derby. General a Rod’s trainer, Mike Maker, is hoping Constitution might force the early issue and that General a Rod can sit just behind the leaders under new rider Joel Rosario.

Constitution is the unknown factor. He is stepping up into Grade 1 company off an impressive optional-claiming victory here last month.

“He’s done all the things you hope all of them will do,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “Now you get the class test to see where you are. He’s giving up seasoning to what appears to be some of, if not the best group of, 3-year-olds on the East Coast, but I’m confident this horse will give a good showing. I think we have a legitimate shot.”

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

Spot was purchased privately by trainer Nick Zito for owner Joseph Moss following his fifth-place finish behind Wildcat Red in the Hutcheson, and he bounced back to register a 2 1/2-length victory in the seven-furlong Swale. Spot has Zito, a two-time Kentucky Derby winner, very excited by the way he’s trained up to the Florida Derby.

Spot breaks from the outside on Saturday, which is not ideal, Zito said.

“But his work the other day was one of the best workouts I’ve seen in my whole life,” Zito said. “My whole life! It tells me he’s going into the race at his very best and that I have Spot in the right spot on Saturday.”

– additional reporting by David Grening