03/05/2012 2:12PM

Gulfstream: Kentucky Derby class of '11 going strong

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – In case anybody hadn’t noticed, the Kentucky Derby class of 2011 is alive and well and flourishing this winter at Gulfstream Park.

First there was Mucho Macho Man, third in last year’s Derby, who opened his 4-year-old campaign with a convincing victory in the Sunshine Millions Classic.  That performance was flattered this weekend after Classic runner-up Ron the Greek captured the Santa Anita Handicap.

Then came the Derby winner himself, Animal Kingdom. He couldn’t have been any more impressive returning from an eight-month layoff to cruise to an easy allowance win on the grass here last month as a prep for his next start in the $10 million Dubai World Classic.

This past weekend, three more members from last year’s Derby field launched comebacks of their own with the results similarly impressive. Pants On Fire easily defeated a strong allowance field that included fellow 2011 Derby grad Dialed In on Saturday, while Soldat turned in almost a mirror image of Animal Kingdom’s race several weeks earlier by dominating an overmatched field of high-priced optional claiming runners on the turf.

Pants On Fire had been idle since the Haskell but trainer Kelly Breen was confident he had him tight and ready for a peak effort right off the bench. And he was right. With Paco Lopez aboard, Pants On Fire stalked a contentious early pace, took control at the quarter pole then drew off to a 4 1/2-length victory over Hunter’s Bay. It was nearly three more lengths back to last year’s Florida Derby winner, Dialed In, who finished fourth while making his first start since the Preakness.

Pants On Fire received a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 97 for the effort.

“He was training really well. I thought he was fit, was hoping for a big effort, and he delivered,” said Breen. “He did not appear to look tired after the race, and he’s got me a little excited about what the future might be for him.”

Breen said he has a couple of spots in mind for Pants On Fire’s next start, but “nothing definitive” and will wait until he gets him back to the track “to make sure everything is good” before making any firm commitments.

Trainer Nick Zito said he didn’t think the race set up real well for Dialed In, who was ridden for the first time on Saturday by Javier Castellano.

“They were going kind of slow up front and Javier said he was a little rank,” said Zito. “Probably because he was coming off a long layoff and was so fresh. Javier said they got put in a bad spot down the backstretch and things just didn’t work out. But we’re not offering any excuses. Thank God he came out of the race well and it’s a race we can move forward on. It’s a long year, and in this game it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish that matters.”

Soldat, the 2011 Fountain of Youth winner trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, was making his first start Sunday since finishing 11th in the Derby and his first on grass since finishing second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf 16 months earlier. Soldat responded by rating kindly off the early leaders under Castellano before readily taking control and pulling away to a comfortable three-length victory, for which he earned a 93 Beyer Speed Figure.

Soldat’s victory came on top of It’s Tricky comeback win for McLaughlin in the Grade 2 Top Flight on Saturday at Aqueduct.

“That was impressive,” McLaughlin said after the race. “It’s nice to get him and It’s Tricky back to win off layoffs. It was a nice doubleheader.”

“We wanted to give him a little layoff last year after the Derby but it turned into a longer layoff than we’d planned,” said McLaughlin. “We’ll focus on turf with him this year.”

McLaughlin said the Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve, or Ft. Marcy are all options for Soldat’s next start.

◗ Soldat’s victory capped a huge weekend for Castellano, who also won five races on Saturday’s program. Castellano has now ridden 83 winners during the current session and has opened a commanding advantage over John Velazquez, who is second in the standings with 61 wins entering Wednesday’s card.

◗ Jackson Bend will be starting highweight under 122 pounds for Saturday’s Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap. He will concede two pounds to Mucho Macho Man and three to defending champion Tackleberry. A small field is expected to contest the one-mile fixture and could also include Boys At Tosconova (119) and Cajun Breeze (114).

◗ Owner Frank Calabrese, trainer Nick Canani, and jockey Joe Rocco Jr. combined to win the first three races on Sunday. The trio scored with Twin Cities in the opener, Centrique in the second and Coach Gravy in the third. All three horses were favored.

Calabrese leads all owners here this winter with 21 victories.

◗ Awesome Feather worked five furlongs in 1:01.03 seconds at Palm Meadows on Monday. Trainer Chad Brown reports that the undefeated Eclipse Award winner remains on target for the Grade 3 Rampart on March 31.