04/01/2011 2:58PM

Florida Derby: Soldat is in it to win it

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – The Florida Derby has produced 21 Kentucky Derby winners in its illustrious 59-year history. It also happens to be a Grade 1 race that carries a $1 million purse. So what exactly is the Florida Derby in the eyes of the horsemen who will send out the leading contenders in Sunday’s 60th edition at Gulfstream Park?

Is it simply a final Kentucky Derby prep, or a goal in itself that offers an opportunity to pick up a lucrative paycheck and some Grade 1 status?

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Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains likely favorite Soldat, said the Florida Derby can stand by itself, but he will attempt to balance the fine line of winning the race without emptying the tank for his main objective, the Kentucky Derby on May 7.

“It’s not a Derby prep per se,” said McLaughlin. “We’re in it to win it. It’s a Grade 1 and we have five weeks to recoup from the race before the Derby.”

Winner of the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream last month, Soldat has been made the 9-5 favorite in a field of eight that also includes Dialed In, To Honor and Serve, Flashpoint, Stay Thirsty, Arch Traveler, Bowman’s Causeway, and Shackleford.Either Holy Bull winner Dialed In or Soldat would be eligible for a $5.5 million bonus offered by MI Developments, Gulfstream’s parent company, should they win the Florida Derby and the Preakness at Pimlico on May 21.

Either Holy Bull winner Dialed In or Soldat would be eligible for a $5.5 million bonus offered by MI Developments, Gulfstream’s parent company, should they win the Florida Derby and the Preakness at Pimlico on May 21.

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Soldat has already had a great winter at Gulfstream Park. He first burst into the Derby picture with a 10 3/4-length allowance win on Jan. 21 and followed that up with a two-length gate-to-wire tally going the same nine furlongs in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth. The versatile Soldat, who closed out his 2-year-old season finishing second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, will break from post 1 in the Florida Derby – the same place he began in the Fountan of Youth.

McLaughlin sees Soldat stalking the speedy Rick Dutrow-trained Flashpoint early in the race.

“We’ll let Flashpoint clear off and see how things develop from there,” said McLaughlin. “I don’t necessarily want to go to the lead every time with our horse. We should definitely be able to save ground, that’s a positive, and hopefully we won’t get jammed up along the inside.”

To Honor and Serve, who finished a tiring third in the Fountain of Youth in his 3-year-old debut, will line up right next to Soldat in post position 2. And trainer Bill Mott said he would like nothing more than to notch his first Florida Derby victory on Sunday.

“This is a very important race for him just because it’s a Grade 1. I don’t want to de-emphasize that,” said Mott. “I love to win, and I’d love to win this one, even though he doesn’t have to win to move on to the next one. If he gets beat and he runs well it will justifty him being in there.”

Mott expected To Honor and Serve to come up short in the Fountain of Youth but expects improvement in his second start of the year.

DERBY WATCH: Mike Watchmaker and Jay Privman's top 20 Kentucky Derby contenders

“The object of his first race was to get him started and look for improvement and hope for a progression as we go along,” said Mott. “He’s improved and fitter for this one. I don’t want to be giving him that same excuse this time.”

Trainer Nick Zito nearly pulled off the Florida Derby/Kentucky Derby double a year ago with Ice Box, who outfinished Pleasant Prince by a nose to win the Florida Derby before finishing second six weeks later in the Kentucky Derby. And Zito likes his chances to win his third Florida Derby with the lightly raced Dialed In, who exploded from last to capture the one-mile Holy Bull in just his second career start.

“Million-dollar races are hard to concede,” said Zito. “The last couple of years the preps have been tougher, and therefore by the time we get to the Derby and especially right after the Derby the division thins out like you won’t believe. Last year we had six weeks after winning the Florida Derby, and most people know that horse [Ice Box] should have won the Derby.”

As was the case in the Holy Bull, Zito is expecting another big run from Dialed In on Sunday.

“I know Dutrow, and he’s all in and he’s giong right for the lead,” said Zito. “My horse will lay back. I don’t know about the others, but he’s going to be coming with his run no matter what.”

Stay Thirsty will race with blinkers for the first time despite posting an easy three-length triumph last month in the Grade 3 Gotham. The victory gives him more than enough graded earnings to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.

“I view the Florida Derby as a very significant race on its own with a horse like Stay Thirsty, who has a stallion’s pedigree,” said trainer Todd Pletcher. “If he wins, it earns him a stallion barn in Kentucky. On the flip side, I’m also willing to experiment with a few things that I might not experiment with in the Kentucky Derby, a case in point being the addition of blinkers. I want to find out before the Kentucky Derby if he handles them. It’s something I might not try if he did not have enough graded earnings and it’s kind of a free roll for us in this race.”

Flashpoint, runaway winner of the seven-furlong Hutcheson, a Grade 2, figures to control and assure an honest pace in the Florida Derby. Dutrow sees the race as both a Derby prep and excellent opportunity to get a Grade 1 win on Flashpoint’s résumé.

“We’re in here to win this race, and after that, five weeks is plenty of time to recuperate for the big one,” said Dutrow. “I assume he’ll make the lead without an effort, but I don’t see any reason why he can’t sit off the pace if he doesn’t break sharp or somebody else wants the lead.”

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Either Dialed In, winner of the Holy Bull, or Soldat would be eligible for a $5.5 million bonus offered by MI Developments, Gulfstream’s parent company, should they win the Florida Derby and the Preakness at Pimlico on May 21.

The 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby will be the last of four graded stakes on Sunday’s 12-race program. Post time for the Florida Derby is scheduled for 5:42 p.m. Eastern, with the race to be shown live on both Sun Sports and HRTV. It will also be streamed live on DRF.com along with the rest of the card.