Updated on 04/01/2014 8:25AM

Florida Derby: Constitution beats Wildcat Red in thriller

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Barbara D. Livingston
Constitution (right), ridden by Javier Castellano, beats Wildcat Red in the Grade 1 Florida Derby on Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Constitution showed a new dimension while also keeping his record unblemished going into the Kentucky Derby when outfinishing a game Wildcat Red to post a well-deserved neck decision in Saturday’s $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.

Constitution, a son of Tapit owned in partnership by Twin Creeks Racing Stables and WinStar Farm, entered the Florida Derby undefeated in two starts but without any stakes experience. He did not begin his career until Jan. 11, when overcoming a slow start to win a seven-furlong maiden race before returning five weeks later to lead throughout and capture his entry-level allowance condition.

With regular rider Javier Castellano aboard, Constitution was hustled briefly after the start, then taken in hand while drifting out a bit entering the clubhouse turn. It took Castellano nearly a half-mile to get Constitution to relax behind the pace of Fountain of Youth Stakes winner Wildcat Red, who drifted several paths wide on the opening turn before setting a reasonable pace, 1:12.00 for the opening six furlongs, while stalked from the outset by General a Rod.

Wildcat Red shook off General a Rod leaving the final turn while again fanning off the rail under jockey John Velazquez. Castellano seized that opportunity to drive Constitution up along the inside to engage the leader at the top of the stretch. The duo then raced as a team to the wire, with Constitution finally asserting himself in the final yards to prove narrowly best.

General a Rod, who dueled with Wildcat Red nearly from gate to wire before finishing second in the Fountain of Youth, held on willingly once dropping back from that nemesis turning for home, finishing another 1 1/4 lengths back in third.

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

Cairo Prince, the even-money favorite despite not having raced since his one-sided victory in the Grade 2 Holy Bull in January, launched a bid four wide on the final bend but could not sustain the rally, finishing fourth in a field of eight 3-year-olds.

Constitution, who entered the Grade 1 Florida Derby with no Kentucky Derby qualifying points, picked up 100 for his victory Saturday, punching his ticket to Louisville on May 3. Wildcat Red already was assured a starting berth in the Kentucky Derby by virtue of his win in the Fountain of Youth.  General a Rod also figures to be on his way to Churchill Downs after earning another 20 qualifying points for his third-place finish in the Florida Derby.

The connections of Cairo Prince, which include Godolphin Racing, which purchased a majority interest in the horse following his big win in the Holy Bull, figure to have some anxious moments between now and Derby Day. Cairo Prince picked up 10 points for his fourth-place finish in the Florida Derby, giving him a total of 24 points.

The Florida Derby was the fifth win on the day for Castellano and the fourth for trainer Todd Pletcher. The pair combined earlier in the day to capture the Grade 2 Gulfstream Oaks with In Tune and the Grade 3 Skip Away with Micromanage.

Constitution covered 1 1/8 miles over a fast track in 1:49.16 and paid $8.60 as the second choice in the wagering.

“This horse has come so far in such a short period of time,” Pletcher said. “Everything has fallen into place, and it’s a real tribute to how talented he is. We didn’t really intend to be in the spot he was in early in the race. We’d intended to be where General a Rod was. He proved today he didn’t need to make the lead to win while also getting some dirt in his face and gaining some valuable experience in the process.”      

Wildcat Red’s trainer, Jose Garoffalo, took his second-place finish in stride.

“It was a hell of a race; we couldn’t ask for more,” he said. “We’re going to Kentucky, absolutely. Castellano was very, very smart. He took the rail, and that was the difference. That’s why we lost the race, but he [Wildcat Red] never quit running.”

[Clocker Reports: Get Mike Welsch’s clocker reports from Gulfstream Park and Palm Meadows]

Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said the nine-week layoff could have made a difference for Cairo Prince but that he’s looking forward to having the opportunity to take his horse to Churchill Downs for the Derby.

“[Jockey Luis Saez] took him out at the three-eighths pole like we thought, and he flattened out,” McLaughlin said. “So, maybe the nine weeks was telling on him, maybe the inside was better; it’s hard to say. But we’ll regroup and move on to May 3. If 24 [points] doesn’t get us in, no problem, but we feel like we’ll get in.”

– additional reporting by David Grening