Updated on 09/16/2011 7:38AM

Talented 3-year-olds hit Derby trail


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The time to begin separating the pretenders from the contenders on the long and difficult road to the Kentucky Derby begins in earnest at Gulfstream Park Wednesday with a pair of two-turn preliminary allowance races featuring several promising 3-year-olds, whose connections are hoping they remain on the Derby trail.

Both races are at 1 1/16 miles for a $34,000 purse.

The opening division, to be run as the sixth race, is led by Governor Hickel, Sledge, and the lightly raced but exciting Stephentown.

Governor Hickel, the only member of the field currently nominated to the meet's cornerstone event, the $1 million Florida Derby, comes off his best effort yet, a wire-to-wire, three-length maiden allowance victory at Churchill Downs on Nov. 11.

"Stretching out and the added experience was the main factor in his improved performance," said Nick Zito, who trains Governor Hickel for owner Marylou Whitney.

"Going to the lead was his style last time but that's not necessarily how he'll run on Wednesday," Zito said. "The key is that he and my other 3-year-olds keep going forward. It's still too early to tell if any of them are going to make the cut. That's what we're here for this winter. The most difficult thing about the Triple Crown races is not winning them but getting there."

Sledge also comes off a much- improved performance when rallying to a convincing allowance victory, going two turns for the first time, at Calder on Dec. 13, and could be the major beneficiary if the pace gets too hot.

Stephentown, a $500,000 purchase at the 2000 Keeneland July sale, has started only twice but made a strong impression when running six furlongs in 1:09 and received a 96 Beyer figure in winning his maiden at Churchill Downs on Nov. 23.

The track has favored speed here the past several days, but the key question remains whether or not he will handle the added distance making his two-turn debut.

Monthir, another Florida Derby nominee, is the one to beat in the second division, which goes as the ninth race on the program.

He faces a field that includes the Zito-trained Iwin and the Calder-based trio of American Style, Rulebook, and Loyal Richard.

Monthir returns to the allowance ranks after finishing second, beaten a half-length by Listen Here, in the Grade 3 Nashua Stakes, and fifth following a protracted speed battle in the Grade 2 Remsen in his 2-year-old finale.

"He had a tough trip in the Remsen," trainer Mark Hennig said. "I didn't anticipate the pace being that stiff. But I don't necessarily think he needs to be on the lead, and I'd hope to see him in a stalking position on Wednesday."

Hennig agreed with Zito, saying it's too early to tell where he stands with any of his 3-year-olds at this point in their careers.

"You never know what to expect with the young horses," said Hennig. "Some turn the corner and become much better 3-year-olds and some never develop. Hopefully, a return to the allowance ranks will help boost Monthir's confidence and give him some much-needed experience, because he's still green and a bit on the lazy side."

Iwin rallied from mid-pack to a hard fought nose decision when stretching to a mile to earn his diploma in his 2-year-old finale.

American Style figures to set the pace in the second division, coming off a much-improved performance with the addition of blinkers and several bullet works.

Loyal Richard was an impressive winner at first asking at Calder, then was parked wide against the bias in his two-turn debut.

Rulebook seeks to rebound from a pair of disappointing efforts after finishing second to the highly regarded Booklet in Calder's In Reality Stakes.

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