03/18/2013 12:44PM

Gulfstream Park: Florida Derby gets new shooter in Merit Man

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Kenny Martin
Merit Man, with Joel Rosario riding, wins the Spectacular Bid.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – The pace scenario for the $1 million Florida Derby may have changed significantly on Monday after trainer Bob Hess Jr. announced his intention to run Merit Man in the Grade 1 fixture on March 30.

Hess made his decision after sending Merit Man out to work seven furlongs in 1:28.98 under jockey Kent Desormeaux moments after the second renovation break on Monday. Breaking off at the 6 1/2-furlong pole, Merit Man posted fractions of 24.86 seconds, 50.76, and 1:16.96 for the opening six furlongs before galloping out a mile in 1:43.56 while completing his final five-sixteenths of a mile into a relatively strong headwind.

Hess said Desormeaux will ride Merit Man in the Florida Derby.

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

Merit Man finished second, beaten a nose as the favorite, to close out his 2-year-old campaign in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint. He has started twice at 3, winning the Spectacular Bid on New Year’s Day before finishing fourth behind Honorable Dillon five weeks later in the seven-furlong, Grade 2 Hutcheson, the farthest he has run in five starts to date.

“He couldn’t blow out a match when he came back to the barn this morning, I thought it was a great work for him,” said Hess. “Although ultimately I believe he’ll end up being a better sprinter, there are several factors that went into the decision to try the Florida Derby. First of all, I think sometimes horses run their best first time routing. The race is coming up light on numbers, the pot is big, and it just looks like a good time to take a shot for that kind of money.”

Hess also is making no bones about his strategy stretching Merit Man out to 1 1/8 miles for the first time in the Florida Derby.

“The track has been favoring speed, so we’ll take the blinkers off, put him on the lead, try to slow it down, and see what happens,” said Hess.

The addition of Merit Man brings the number of confirmed starters for the Florida Derby to five. The list also includes the top-rated trio of Shanghai Bobby, Itsmyluckyday, and Orb, along with Frac Daddy. Trainer Dale Romans said he is considering running recent maiden-breaker Pick of the Litter in the race.

Orb, winner of the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth in his last start, worked four furlongs in 48 and galloped out five-eighths in 1:01 at Payson Park on Monday under his regular exercise rider, Jenn Patterson, according to trainer Shug McGaughey.

“The work was excellent. I couldn’t be more pleased with it. Everything’s right on schedule,” said McGaughey.

Shanghai Bobby turned in his next-to-last work for the Florida Derby on Sunday morning at Palm Meadows, going five furlongs in 1:00.14 in company with Palace Malice, who will also run on March 30 in the Louisiana Derby. John Velazquez was aboard Shanghai Bobby for his work, although Rosie Napravnik will take her regular seat on the BC Juvenile champion for trainer Todd Pletcher in the Florida Derby. Edgar Prado breezed Palace Malice and has the mount in the Louisiana Derby.

“He went really well,” Pletcher said of Shanghai Bobby. “He worked in company with Palace Malice and they finished up well, head and head, galloped out strong. It was a good work. I think he’s been training as well as he was going into the Holy Bull or even better. We’re just hoping for more of what we’ve been seeing and that’s what we saw this morning.”

Shanghai Bobby is one of more than a half-dozen horses Pletcher will run on Florida Derby day. At the moment, he has also penciled in Dreaming of Julia for the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks; Travelin Man and Soaring Stocks for the $75,000 Sir Shackleton; Seanchai for the Grade 2 Orchid; and both Ciao Bella and Authenticity for the Grade 3 Rampart.

Disposablepleasure returned to the winner’s circle for Pletcher for the first time since capturing the Grade 2 Demoiselle in November of 2011, winning Sunday’s fourth race, an optional claimer at 1 1/16 miles over the main track. Disposablepleasure, runner-up in the Grade 1 Mother Goose last summer at Belmont, had been idle since finishing far back in Keeneland’s Grade 1 Spinster five months earlier.

Napravnik could have a big day here on Florida Derby day. In addition to riding Shanghai Bobby in the main event, she will also have the call on Take Charge Indy, if he goes, in the Grade 3 Skip Away. Take Charge Indy had his first major work since finishing third in the Grade 1 Donn Handicap, breezing six furlongs in 1:14 at Palm Meadows on Sunday.

“He’s also nominated to the New Orleans Handicap,” said trainer Pat Byrne, “but we’re leaning towards the Skip Away because it would be a lot easier to ship him 45 minutes to Gulfstream rather than all the way to New Orleans to face Graydar.

“Another reason is we can get Rosie to ride him since we’ve already been told Johnny [Velazquez] is riding Cigar Street in the Skip Away for Bill Mott”

Byrne said making an early move at the pacesetting Graydar, who won the race, may have cost Take Charge Indy second in the Donn.

“The winner turned in a freaky performance, but our horse ran well,” said Byrne. “It was a good start to the year. Second would have been nice, but third is okay.”

Castellano leads riders

Javier Castellano will bring a tenuous five-win lead over Joel Rosario in the jockey standings when racing resumes on Wednesday, with just 13 days left in the meet. Luis Saez, John Velazquez –who had three winners on Sunday – and Jose Lezcano complete the top five.

Saez will miss the remainder of the meet while Lezcano is also currently sidelined by injuries suffered in the same spill here on March 9.

◗ A carryover of $898,574 will await bettors in the 10-cent Rainbow 6 pool when racing resumes on Wednesday.