03/29/2012 4:38PM

Gulfstream: Union Rags an imposing challenge for El Padrino in Florida Derby

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Barbara D. Livingston
El Padrino gets some attention from exercise rider Isabelle Bourez at Palm Meadows on Wednesday.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – The barn of Todd Pletcher at the Palm Meadows training center is just a few rows from that of Michael Matz, and every morning, watching the Matz-trained Union Rags on the track, Pletcher has been reminded of the challenge he faces on Saturday in the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.

Pletcher comes into the race armed with El Padrino, who comes off a victory last month in the Risen Star Stakes, but he realizes he faces a formidable task trying to knock off Union Rags, the current favorite for the Kentucky Derby on May 5.

“Anyone who has seen him run or train has to be impressed. It’s a tall order,” Pletcher said Thursday morning. “But our horse is doing well. He’s a big, strong colt. We’re not going to duck anyone. But we have a lot of respect for Union Rags.”

With good reason. Union Rags has won 4 times in 5 starts, his lone loss coming in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, in which he was compromised by a wide trip. In his only start since then, Union Rags was a four-length winner on Feb. 26 of the Fountain of Youth, Gulfstream’s major prep for the Florida Derby.

The Fountain of Youth was a sobering race for Pletcher. His lone starter, Discreet Dancer, was a distant third to Union Rags. And his best Derby prospect at the time, the unbeaten Algorithms, went to the sidelines that day with an injury that knocked him out of contention for the Derby.

Now, Pletcher will try with El Padrino, who owns 3 wins in 5 starts, at five different racetracks. The Florida Derby will be the first time he has competed at the same track twice. He won an allowance race here on Jan. 29 against Take Charge Indy, who is also in the Florida Derby. After that, El Padrino was sent to Fair Grounds for the Risen Star, in which he prevailed after a stretch-long duel with Mark Valeski.

[FLORIDA DERBY: Video previews, watch Saturday's full card live]

“He was very game in his last race,” said jockey Javier Castellano, who, along with his agent, Matt Muzikar, stuck with their main client, Pletcher, and gave up Union Rags before the Fountain of Youth. “I’ve only ridden him twice in races. He was impressive the first time. Last time, I thought he was going to go by the other horse, but they hooked up. He’s steady. You’ve got to ride him.”

Castellano said he has been aboard El Padrino for all three of his works since the Risen Star.

“He’s very consistent, very steady, not the kind that’s going to get a bullet,” Castellano said. “He’s laid-back. He’s so easy. That’s good for races. You can put him where you want. He’s not going to be on his toes, he’s not going to get rank.”

El Padrino will start from post 8 in the nine-horse field, two slots to the outside of Union Rags. Castellano rode Union Rags in three starts last year, so he is familiar with that colt’s tendencies.

Julien Leparoux was the beneficiary of Castellano’s decision to forgo Union Rags, and he was aboard for the Fountain of Youth. Like El Padrino, Union Rags has had three works at Palm Meadows since his last start.

Matz won the Florida Derby six years ago with Barbaro, who also won the Kentucky Derby.

“I want this race to move this horse forward the way it did Barbaro,” Matz said. “The Florida Derby was a tough race for Barbaro. He got a lot out of it.”

Of the seven others in the Florida Derby, the most notable are Take Charge Indy, who has not run since finishing second to El Padrino in that Jan. 29 allowance race, and News Pending, a distant second to Union Rags in the Fountain of Youth.

Neck ’n Neck, fourth in the Fountain of Youth, is back to try again, with Edgar Prado riding for the first time.

“My horse made too many mistakes last time,” said Ian Wilkes, who trains Neck ’n Neck. “He was a little rank on the first turn. He spent the whole first turn trying to get to the outside. You can’t make mistakes against these kinds of horses.”

The rest are big longshots. Bartolome was third in a first-level allowance last time out. Fort Loudon was fifth in the Fountain of Youth. Reveron was third in the Sam Davis at Tampa. Z Camelot is winless in four starts, all against maidens.

The Florida Derby is the 11th race on a terrific 13-race card that begins at 12:30 p.m. Eastern. It is part of a late pick four that has a guaranteed pool of $300,000, and a late pick five that has a guaranteed pool of $250,000.

The race will be shown live on NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus), in a one-hour telecast beginning at 5 p.m. Tom Hammond is the host. HRTV also will have live, on-site coverage of the card, as will the radio network HRRN. The listed post time for the Florida Derby is 5:40 p.m.

There are six other stakes on the card, most notably the Grade 2, $300,000 Gulfstream Oaks for 3-year-old fillies – featuring Yara and Grace Hall, the one-two finishers in last month’s Davona Dale Stakes – and the Grade 3, $150,000 Rampart Stakes for older females, in which the brilliant Awesome Maria will be a heavy favorite.

Also on the card is the Grade 3, $100,000 Appleton Stakes for turf milers, including Brilliant Speed and Street Game; the Grade 3, $150,000 Skip Away for older horses, headed by Iselin winner Where’s Sterling; the Grade 3, $150,000 Orchid for female turf horses, including Keertana and the unbeaten Aqsaam; and the $70,000 Sir Shackleton for sprinters, topped by 2010 Cigar Mile winner Jersey Town.

Florida Derby (G1), Post Time: 5:40 ET Saturday

Purse: $1,000,000; 1 1/8 miles

Post

Horse

Trainer

Jockey

ML Odds

1

Fort Loudon

S. Gold

L. Jurado

20-1

1

News Pending

D. Romans

R. Maragh

8-1

1

Take Charge Indy

P. Byrne

C. Borel

5-1

1

Neck n' Neck

I. Wilkes

E. Prado

20-1

1

Z Camelot

D. Romans

J. Bravo

50-1

1

Union Rags

M. Matz

J. Leparoux

6-5

1

Bartoleme

J. Garoffalo

J. Castanon

30-1

1

El Padrino

T. Pletcher

J. Castellano

2-1

1

Reveron

A. Bezara

E. Trujillo

12-1