04/01/2008 12:00AM

Stutts, 70, heading to first Derby


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Trainer Bennie Stutts Jr.'s phone has been ringing off the hook since Smooth Air finished an easy second behind runaway winner Big Brown in Saturday's $1 million Florida Derby. And rightly so since the 70-year-old Stutts will be one of the more engaging stories when he arrives in Louisville later this month with his first Kentucky Derby starter.

"This is something brand new for me, getting all these calls and all this attention," Stutts said. "It's unbelievable to think that at this stage of my career that I'd be running a horse in the Kentucky Derby. I'm on such a high right now. I've never been treated like this in my life."

Stutts deserves all the accolades for the way he handled Smooth Air from the moment the son of Smooth Jazz won his maiden when launching his career last summer at Calder. Smooth Air, a homebred owned by Mt. Joy Stables, first gained national attention when he upset the Grade 2 Hutcheson Stakes earlier this winter. He then proved he could stay two turns when he finished a strong third behind Fierce Wind and Big Truck in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 16.

Stutts opted not to return to Tampa for the Tampa Bay Derby on March 15, deciding instead to wait for the richer and more prestigious Florida Derby two weeks later. He knew he would have to put one hard work into his horse to compensate for the six weeks between starts.

Smooth Air wowed the Gulfstream Park clockers by working seven furlongs in 1:23 and change March 16, galloping out in a manner that suggested he would have no problem handling the 1 1/8 miles of the Florida Derby.

"I had to put one good, stiff work into him, and he was actually blowing harder from that work than he was after the race Saturday," Stutts said. "But it accomplished what we needed to accomplish to have him at his best for the Florida Derby. He's not a big horse but he's all horse. Let's face it, they wouldn't have caught Big Brown if we went around again, he was like a freak of nature the way he ran, but I thought my rider [Manny Cruz] rode a smart race staying off the fast pace like he did. If he had stayed up with those leaders, I don't think he'd have finished. Smooth Air has become what he is because of the way he's learned to rate."

Stutts said Smooth Air will likely ship to Churchill Downs about a week before the Derby. He'll go into the barn of Dallas Stewart, who also trains horses for Mt. Joy Stables.

Hey Byrn to try turf

Trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. said Hey Byrn's next start could come in the derby. The Calder Derby that is. Hey Byrn finished a distant fourth in the Florida Derby.

"I couldn't find any excuse for his race on Saturday, which was disappointing to say the least," Plesa said. "Right now, I'm thinking about working him on the grass, and if he handles it bringing him back in the Calder Derby on April 26."

At least Plesa's day ended well Saturday, when Electrify turned in an electrifying performance winning the $75,000 Forever Whirl Stakes for Florida-breds. His final time of 1:47.85 for nine furlongs was actually .35 of a second faster than Big Brown posted winning the Florida Derby an hour earlier, earning Electrify a career-best 109 Beyer Speed Figure.

"If only he was a 3-year-old," Plesa quipped.

Electrify's victory also took a little of the sting out of Face the Cat's disheartening effort in the Florida Derby. Both are owned by Satish Sanan's Padua Stable. Sanan purchased an interest in Face the Cat after the 3-year-old son of Tale of the Cat won his first two starts here earlier this winter. Face the Cat, trained by Todd Pletcher, was never a factor while finishing eighth in the Florida Derby.

McCauley to ride in south Florida

Herb McCauley, who returned to the saddle following a long absence last fall in New Jersey, has switched his tack to south Florida and will will ride for the first time this meet on Thursday. He will be aboard Awesome Alexandra for trainer Marty Wolfson in the featured eighth race.

"I was riding in New York early this winter, but then they took a break around Christmas and my weight ballooned up," McCauley said. "So I took the rest of the winter off to get it back on track and I feel real good right now. I decided this would be a good place to start up again because the weather is suitable and the meet is closing out. A lot of the bigger-named riders are leaving, but there are still a lot of trainers staying behind that I've ridden for in the past."

Among them is the Calder-based Wolfson, for whom McCauley has had considerable success over the years.

"He won a lot of big races for me on The Vid, and he also won the Orchid for me here at Gulfstream with Golden Pond," Wolfson said.

McCauley has turned his riding engagements over to veteran agent Dick Diego.

Velazquez, Coa ship out

Jockey John Velazquez ended his 2008 Gulfstream campaign in high style, winning Sunday's Orchid Handicap aboard Hostess with his last mount at the meet. But it wasn't enough to give the two-time Gulfstream riding champion the 2008 title. That honor figures to go to Eibar Coa, who posted riding doubles both Sunday and Monday to leave town with a 75-72 lead over Velazquez in quest of his second Gulfstream championship.

Although the meet does not end until April 20, none of the other riders who are remaining until the end of the session are close enough to overtake either Coa or Velazquez.