03/12/2012 2:54PM

Gulfstream: Florida Derby shaping up as strong test for Union Rags

Lou Hodges Jr.
El Padrino, with Javier Castellano riding, edges Mark Valeski in the Risen Star.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – In the wake of Union Rags’ brilliant performance last month in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, it sounded like Gulfstream Park’s racing secretary, Dan Bork, would be hard pressed to assemble even a handful of 3-year-olds willing to take on the division leader, even for $1 million, in the Grade 1 Florida Derby on March 31. Now it appears the field size will not only be respectable but that Union Rags may not have any walk in the park in his final Kentucky Derby prep.

Among the 3-year-olds now considering challenging Union Rags in the nine-furlong Florida Derby are Risen Star winner El Padrino, Withers winner Alpha, Fountain of Youth runner-up News Pending, and Take Charge Indy, whose connections opted to pass last Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby in lieu of the Florida Derby. Trainer Ken McPeek said the Florida Derby is also an option for the Tampa Bay Derby runner-up, Golden Ticket.

Trainer Todd Pletcher said Monday that El Padrino “would probably” run in the Florida Derby rather than return to the Fair Grounds for the Louisiana Derby the following day. El Padrino, who worked a near-bullet half-mile in 48 seconds at Palm Meadows on Monday, outgamed Mark Valeski by a nose to capture the Grade 2 Risen Star on Feb. 25. He had earned a 100 Beyer Speed Figure defeating Take Charge Indy by two lengths in an allowance race in his 3-year-old debut. Both those races were at 1 1/16 miles

“Our horse has already won over the track, and it’s a Grade 1. With his pedigree a victory would add significant value as a stallion prospect,” Pletcher explained. “Running in the Florida Derby also takes shipping out of the equation, and if he were to continue on the Derby trail it allows us to stay in south Florida as long as we want to train. I know the toughest 3-year-old around” – Union Rags – “is right here, but in a case like this, it’s more a matter of managing our horse and not worrying about any others.”

Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin brought Alpha back to Palm Meadows from New York shortly after his victory in the Withers in part to give him the option to run in the Florida Derby. The other logical choice would be to return to Aqueduct for the Grade 1 Wood the following weekend.

“Right now we’re about 50-50 between the Florida Derby and the Wood,” said McLaughlin. “Obviously we’re not going to be the favorite in either spot.”

McLaughlin said he would consult with Simon Crisford, racing manager for Godolphin “and we’ll discuss our options before making a final decision. The Louisiana Derby is also a possibility. One plus for going in the Florida Derby over the Wood is that it will definitely allow us to keep Ramon as our rider.”

McLaughlin was referring to Ramon Dominguez, the regular rider for both Alpha and Hansen, who figures to be the heavy favorite in the Wood.

News Pending is coming off his best effort yet in the Fountain of Youth.

“He worked great this morning,” trainer Dale Romans said on Sunday. “He’s really starting to come to himself. We’ll look at all the upcoming preps and see how they shape up, but right now we’re leaning towards staying here for the Florida Derby.”

McPeek said the Florida Derby or Blue Grass would be next for Golden Ticket.

“We’ll see how he comes out of this last race and how much time he needs,” said McPeek.

The Blue Grass will be run on April 14, two weeks after the Florida Derby.