03/28/2013 4:10PM

Florida Derby matches Orb, Itsmyluckyday, and Shanghai Bobby

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Tom Keyser
Orb most likely earned enough points for a berth in the Kentucky Derby with this victory in the Fountain of Youth.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Neither trainer Shug McGaughey nor owner Dinny Phipps are prone to contracting Derby fever. But there’s no doubt temperatures have been rising around the barn ever since Orb entered the Kentucky Derby picture with his come-from-behind victory over the odds-on Violence in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth earlier this winter.

Orb will attempt to take McGaughey to the Kentucky Derby for just the second time since 1989 when he meets likely favorite Itsmyluckyday and reigning juvenile champion Shanghai Bobby in the $1 million Florida Derby on Saturday at Gulfstream Park. The Grade 1 Florida Derby will be decided at 1 1/8 miles and highlights a spectacular 13-race program that serves up six other stakes races, five of them graded, including the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks for 3-year-old fillies.

[FLORIDA DERBY: Get PPs, watch Saturday’s full card live]

The Florida Derby offers 170 Kentucky Derby qualifying points, with 100 going to the winner. The race will be broadcast live along with the Louisiana Derby on a one-hour telecast that will air from 6-7 p.m. Eastern on NBC Sports Network. Post time for the card is 12:30 p.m., with the Florida Derby scheduled to be run at 6:19 p.m.

Saarland, who ran 10th in 2002, was McGaughey’s last Kentucky Derby starter, and his first since sending out Easy Goer and Awe Inspiring to finish second and third behind Sunday Silence in 1989. Easy Goer was owned by Ogden Phipps, Awe Inspiring by his son Dinny.

Orb, who is owned by Dinny Phipps and his first cousin Stuart Janney III, has made great progress for McGaughey since finally winning his maiden in his fourth start last fall at Aqueduct. A homebred son of Malibu Moon, Orb stretched out around two turns to register a one-length optional-claiming victory going 1 1/8 miles while racing on Lasix for the first time in his Gulfstream debut Jan. 26. He returned four weeks later to rally from near the rear of the field to upset Violence in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth, earning a career-best 97 Beyer Speed Figure and 50 Derby qualifying points.

McGaughey said after the Fountain of Youth that he doesn’t get Derby fever, but admitted, “I’ve been thinking about the Derby ever since I started rubbing horses back in 1971.”

“I’m not saying he’s got to win the Florida Derby,” McGaughey said. “If he were to go out there Saturday and come running, that would be fine. But he’s got to look like he belongs or we’re not going to run him in the [Kentucky] Derby.”

McGaughey said he couldn’t be happier with the way Orb is coming into the race.

“I was worried he might whittle away on me after the Fountain of Youth,” McGaughey said. “Instead, he’s gone the other way. I guess it’s just maturity, but he’s definitely going in the right direction at the right time.”

Unlike Orb, who is virtually assured of a starting spot in the Kentucky Derby as a result of his victory in the Fountain of Youth, both Itsmyluckyday and Shanghai Bobby still need big performances Saturday to qualify.

Itsmyluckyday earned just 10 points for his two-length decision over Shanghai Bobby in the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 26 and none for his 6 3/4-length triumph in the ungraded Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year’s Day. A son of Lawyer Ron, he is owned by Trilogy Stable and Laurie Plesa, the wife of his trainer, Eddie Plesa Jr.

“If I could have drawn a map from the Holy Bull until now regarding his training for the Florida Derby, this is the map I’d have drawn,” Plesa said. “Things couldn’t have gone better.”

As for what he might do should Itsmyluckyday still not have enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby after Saturday, Plesa said: “Our first goal is to do what’s best for him. Sure we’d love to already have the points, but barring something crazy, I feel we should get them.”

Despite winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and being the reigning juvenile champ, Shanghai Bobby is not a certainty for a Derby berth just yet, with 24 points coming into the Florida Derby. Owned by Starlight Racing and Coolmore, Shanghai Bobby suffered his first setback in six starts when he proved no match for Itsmyluckyday after setting a contested pace in the Holy Bull.

Trainer Todd Pletcher said he’s not going to push Shanghai Bobby just to make the Kentucky Derby.

“If he runs well enough, he’ll get the points to get into the Kentucky Derby,” Pletcher said. “If he doesn’t, we’ll go someplace else.”

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

If any of the seven other Florida Derby starters wins the race, it will be considered a major upset.

The presence of Merit Man, runner-up in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint, assures a lively pace, and trainer Bob Hess Jr. made no bones about his strategy.

“We’re going to go [to the lead] and see what happens,” Hess said.

Pick of the Litter was extremely impressive winning his maiden by 7 1/2 lengths making his first start on dirt, but will be taking a big step up into Grade 1 company with only two races under his belt.

Frac Daddy, who missed by a neck in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes to close his 2-year-old campaign, will try to rebound from a sixth-place finish in the Holy Bull, where he had his chances compromised when badly grabbing a quarter shortly after the start.