Zito Hot for Cool Coal Man in the Gulfstream Park Handicap

With an undefeated record at Gulfstream Park and one of the fastest performances of the year already under his belt, Robert LaPenta’s 4-year-old colt Cool Coal Man is poised for a big effort in the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap (G2) Saturday.

Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito is excited to send the son of Mineshaft into the 65th running of the storied race as it shifts to one mile for the first time this year. He eagerly points out how impressive Cool Coal Man ran in his 2009 debut winning an optional/allowance race by 2 ¼ lengths going 6 ½ furlongs here Jan. 28.

“The one-turn mile is perfect for him, especially with the way he won his last race sprinting,” said Zito Wednesday afternoon. “He couldn’t be doing any better and he loves Gulfstream. He’s a quality horse.”

Cool Coal Man is 3-for-3 at Gulfstream, including a victory in last year’s Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) early last year. He will be bidding to become just the second horse to win both races along with Sensitive Prince, who took the Fountain of Youth in 1978 and the Gulfstream Park Handicap the following year.

Among those standing in Cool Coal Man’s way will be Robert Clay’s Formidable, a speedy winner of two sprints already this meet for Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens, who guided the career of Sensitive Prince. A son of Sky Mesa, Formidable breaks from post 2, a source of concern for Zito with his charge starting along the rail in post 1.

“We’re a little disappointed about the post,” said Zito, who will give the leg-up to Jose Lezcano Saturday. “We have to sit back because we don’t have the same speed as ‘The Chief’s’ horse, but we should be able to get in a good spot. He’ll be in the game, that’s for sure.”

Zito’s concerns about the rail draw were lightened Wednesday when LaPenta’s 3-year-old colt Just a Coincidence stalked his way to an allowance race victory at the same distance from post 1 and stamped himself as a potential stakes contender on the Triple Crown trail.

“I really like the way he came home today and the horse he beat is a nice horse,” said Zito after watching Just a Coincidence and jockey Paco Lopez best Gone Astray. “You never know. The Florida Derby (G1) comes up a little too quick, but we’ll find something. We were concerned about the post for Cool Coal Man, but maybe we’re on to something after what this horse just did.”

Cool Coal Man finished 15th in the 2008 Kentucky Derby (G1), 31¾ lengths behind Big Brown, and later faltered to 11th-place in the Travers Stakes (G1) at Saratoga after a wide trip and a fifth-place result on a ‘sloppy’ track in the Jerome Handicap (G2) at Belmont Park in October before Zito put him on the shelf with a Gulfstream assault the goal.

“He’s a very cool horse and I love the way he came back,” said Zito. “He’s been training great and has come back from his little vacation tremendous.”

‘Quality’ Derby Dreams Keep Velazquez in Florida Instead of Dubai

Fresh off a three-win day, two-time Eclipse Award champion jockey John Velazquez was visiting his Gulfstream Park clients Thursday morning and pondering the extensive travel schedule ahead of him over the next month.

One place he likely won’t be headed is Dubai as he is giving up his spot atop 2008 Eclipse champion female sprinter Indian Blessing to stay in the U.S. and ride Edward P. Evans’s Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) winner Quality Road in the $750,000 Florida Derby (G1) the same day, Sat., Mar. 28.

“It was a very tough decision,” said Velazquez. “But Quality Road is really the one horse I’ve got that’s heading toward the (Kentucky) Derby (G1) right now. Indian Blessing is a really good horse, but it’s about the Derby right now and Quality Road is a 3-year-old that has that kind of promise.”

The Florida Derby has been held on the same day as the Dubai World Cup (G1) festival in the United Arab Emirates since 2006. Two years ago, Velazquez gambled by getting off a Fountain of Youth Stakes winner to go to Dubai and came a cropper when Scat Daddy and Edgar Prado won the Florida Derby while the best he could manage was a fifth-place finish aboard Bishop Court Hill in the Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1).

This year’s Florida Derby is shaping up as a showdown between Quality Road and the undefeated Dunkirk, owned by the Coolmore partnership of Susan Magnier, Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor and trained by Velazquez’s main patron Todd Pletcher. Velazquez has gotten little inside information on his intriguing rival.

“I’ve gotten no edge on (Dunkirk) so far,” he said. “He hasn’t done anything wrong and he’s going to be tough.”

Desormeaux & McPeek Lead Competitive Gulfstream Title Races

Jockey Kent Desormeaux is leading a very competitive Gulfstream Park title chase this season with 38 victories, but Julien Leparoux is only one back with 37 wins and a Wednesday triple for John R. Velazquez brought him to within two of the lead with 36 trips to the winners’ circle.

Desormeaux is riding here for the second full season since moving his tack from California and the Hall of Fame rider is bidding for a first Gulfstream championship. Leparoux is based at Gulfstream for the first time as he arrived this winter on the momentum of a record-breaking performance leading the Churchill Downs fall session.

Alan Garcia is another newcomer this year doing well to rank fourth with 34 wins, followed by Jose Lezcano fifth with 33, Eibar Coa sixth with 31, Edgar Prado seventh at 30 and Cornelio Velasquez and Elvis Trujillo tied for eighth with 29 apiece.

Velazquez has previously won Gulfstream titles in 2004 and 2006, Coa in 2003 and 2008, Prado in 2005 and Velasquez in 2007.

Ken McPeek has led the trainers’ standings since early in the meet and remains on top after sending out 22 winners as attempts to capture his first title here, but Todd Pletcher is only three behind at 19 as he bids to extent his streak of Gulfstream championships to six in a row.

Nick Zito is having a strong meet third with 15 wins, followed by Peter Walder fourth with 13, Bill Mott and Wesley Ward tied for fifth at 11 each and Marty Wolfson and Kiaran McLaughlin next with 10 apiece. Mott has won nine Gulfstream meet titles, the most recent in 2002.