HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA., March 31, 2012—The electricity surrounding the Gulfstream Park paddock could have been cut with a knife. Already tight, the walking ring was jammed with onlookers, awaiting the appearance of “the big horse.”

As the horses for the Florida Derby were led into the ring, the buzz became palpable; here and there, whoops and hollers coming from the crowd on hand. All the horses were in the ring but one, the Derby favorite.
Awesome Maria struts her stuff
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Awesome Maria struts her stuff
That was very much old school style from trainer Michael Matz. You train the best horse, you train the star of the show; you’re supposed to be the last one in the ring.

When Union Rags finally entered, about four minutes after the others, the crowd began chirping again, the tension starting to mount, again.

As the horses circled, the crowd apparently got to longshot Z Camelot, who was parading directly in front of the big horse. Z Camelot became obstreperous, attempting to wheel and half run-off, scattering the people in his wake.

Union Rags, his copper-clad bay coat glimmering, never raised a hair. But unfortunately for his fans, and the public who made him a prohibitive 2-5 favorite, he never had a chance to raise his legs, to strut his stuff.

Jockey Julien Leparoux saw it this way: “It was just bad luck. He doesn’t care about being on the rail, in behind, or dirt [in his face]. Nobody paid attention to the winner, they let him go. I guess they just target the favorite.”

Racing over a track that saw seven of the eighth races go to the horse that was on the lead in the midstretch—the other race going to horses that were racing 2-1 in midstretch—Take Charge Indy, second in his season’s debut on this track in January, led Union Rags, El Padrino and all the rest to win the 61st running of the Florida Derby by a length over local longshot Reveron.

The runnerup finished a neck in front of Union Rags who had 1-3/4 lengths on the strong second favorite, Risen Star winner El Padrino, who finished a one-paced fourth.

“Union Rags is a monster,” said Chuck Sandford, owner of Take Charge Indy, who impressed with his honest assessment. “Today’s track didn’t suit his style, it suit ours. But the other two times we ran in Grade 1s, we ran against the bias. Today the rail was golden.

“Now he’s been in three Grade 1s and he finally got one of them. Calvin has been the perfect answer. He fits the colt to a tee. The nice thing about the colt is that he has front-end speed, he’s tactical. Calvin is so magical when you have that kind of horse.”

Although he wouldn’t say so, his victory in the Florida Derby represented a form a redemption for Borel who began his winter in South Florida, staying close to the colt and hoping to upgrade his business. The tack didn’t work. Borel raced at Gulfstream for over a month.
Grace Hall -- Sharp break, sharper finish
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Grace Hall (5) -- Sharp break, sharper finish
You could count his winners on one hand and have several fingers left over. So he went to Oaklawn, where he rides another 3-year-old prospect, Najjaar, for trainer Dan Peitz, and has been leading rider on the circuit for years.

“This horse is a good horse,” said winning trainer Pat Byrne. “I’ve been telling everyone he’s only going to get better with age and distance and we have a great rider in Calvin. The five weeks up to the Derby is perfect. This horse likes to come in [to his races] fresh.”

Matz was philosophical but quite aware what was happening as he watched the replay in the horsemen’s lounge-turned press box. “He sprung a shoe in the paddock but it was no big deal, we just tacked it back on.

“But Julien said Javier was on him all the way down the back-side, that’s just race-riding. It was unfortunate the way it turned out today. It was just one of those things."

It's a Jungle Out There
Union Rags on the muscle as he enters the ring
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Union Rags on the muscle as he enters the ring
Brilliant Speed was all the buzz coming into the Grade 3 Appleton, making headlines at 3 and getting ready for the Woodford Reserve on the Kentucky Derby undercard. He didn't figure to be one-hundred percent in his return, but he figured to the better than that!

Instead, it was Corporate Jungle who parlayed a good looking preliminary allowance win into a Grade 3 score in his stakes debut. He was very good, running a mile in 1:33.99 for his length victory over Trend, and Chad Brown did a good job in preparation.

But this one was a product of Javier Castellano's skill, who an hour earlier, accepted a trophy as the meet's leading rider with a week yet to go, a record-setting meet for Castellano.

The pace in the turf race was unusually fast, with early split of :22.97 and :45.53. Castellano was saving ground in the pocket, a perfect position third, but he gave up that position, taking him off the inside and back to fifth, not wanting his mount get get wilted in the early heat. Perfect strategy.

Gearing up now four wide on the turn, his forward momentum carried him into the lead soon after entering the straight, Castellano keeping his mount alive as Trend with Julien Leparoux was bearing down rapidly. Corporate Jungle and Castellano had more than enough in the tank to prevail.
A smiling Calvin Borel -- and this was BEFORE the race.
Photo by: Toni Pricci
A smiling Calvin Borel -- and this was before the race.
"I'll take a look at the Woodford Reserve trying to stretch him out a bit," said Brown. "He gave me a good kickin the end," Castellano said. "He galloped out really nice and I think he'll go farther."

Prelude to a Derby?

Julien Leparoux warmed up nicely for his appointment aboard Union Rags in the centerpiece Florida Deby by taking the Grade 3 Skip Away with 12-1 upsetter Fort Larned, who stalked the pace of Uptowncharliebrown, took command after six furlongs and gamely withstood the late challenge of Alma D'oro to win the mile and three-sixteenths event.

Second favorite Self Control made a menacing run around the bend but failed to go on with it. Favorite Where's Sterling was a disappointing, one-paced fourth.

"He's four and he's just maturing," trained Ian WIlkes said of the winner. "He ran good. They don't run too many at a mile and three-sixteenths. We'll take it."

"Ian figured this horse out," said Leparoux. In his previous races we had been taking him back but when we let him run free he runs big. He's an improving horse."
Borell and Byrne celebrate.  Take Charge Indy only has eyes for the camera.
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Borel and Byrne celebrate. Take Charge Indy only has eyes for the camera.
The running time of 1:53.92 was a new track record, eclipsing the mark of 1.54.74 set by Eddington in 2005.

Awesome Is as Awesome Does

It was testimony to the class of this tremendous filly that Awesome Maria was able to win the Rampart without running anywhere near her best form. This became apparent when Johnny Velazquez, winning his second straight stakes for Todd Pletcher, was asking his filly to get into the bridle despite a dawdling opening quarter-mile in :24.10.

But she eventually did start running just as the pace began to pick up, a half in :47.61 and three-quarters in 1:10.52. Awesome Maria began to engage pacesetting Canadian Mistress in earnest on the far turn, took clear command into the stretch and was ridden out to win the Grade 3 nine furlongs in 1:48.19. But what she might have lacked in sharpness she made up for in class.

"Just ta have her back this year alone, and the way she put two races back-to-back is awesome to see," said Velazquez.

Awesome, like Maria.

Bets n' Pieces

Bartolemeo, a 30-1 afterthought entrant in today's Florida Derby, has been scratched with a bruised foot. "Nothng serious," the connections said, "just bad timing..."

Track fast; turf firm for Florida Derby day...

Rogue Romance, who hasn't been seen since he finished third to Mucho Macho Man in the 2011 G2 Risen Star, made a strong return to the races, hold off the rally of favorite Wiki to take the opener, running a mile in an eye-catching 1:34.95...

We'll be posting from Gulfstream Park throughout the afternoon...

Post time for the Florida Derby is scheduled for 5:40 p.m. I'll take OVER...

I'm Just a Travellin' Man

Under a well judged ride from Johnny Velazquez, Travellin' Man wore down favorite Jersey Town in deep stretch to win the Sir Shackleton in a lively 1:14.62 for 6-1/2 furlongs. Jersey Town, making his first start since the Breeders' Cup, did most of the dirty work racing Action Andy into defeat on the turn while the winner sat just off his flank.

These two battled the length of the stretch until Travellin' Man drew off inside the furlong pole. Todd Pletcher trained the winner, the 3-1 co-second favorite...