Two colts considered to be among the top five Triple Crown prospects by most handicappers will square off in Saturday’s Grade I, $750,000 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park at 1 1/8 miles in a race that has produced two major players in Thoroughbred racing over the past two years.

Fountain of Youth victor Quality Road, who was not an early nominee, and super-impressive DUNKIRK, who was, headline a potentially small but quality-filled field of seven to eight. It’s a match-up that many Triple Crown trail observers have been waiting to see. It certainly will serve as a class check for the undefeated DUNKIRK, who will be making his first start in a stakes race, where he has a distinct disadvantage in seasoning, not only against stakes runners but also in his general development.

The Florida Derby will be only the third career start for the son of Unbridled’s Song-Secret Status, owned by Michael Tabor, Mrs. John Magnier and Derrick Smith, the impressive combine that is a big player in Thoroughbred racing ranks. Add to that the fact the colt is trained by Todd Pletcher. Additionally, DUNKIRK has another taboo to overcome if he is to win the Kentucky Derby – he did not race as a 2-year-old and the last Derby winner not to race as a juvenile was Apollo in 1882, the eighth Kentucky Derby.

As for experience, Quality Road, trained by Jim Jerkens for owner-breeder Edward P. Evans, will only be making his fourth lifetime start, but he does have the Grade II Fountain of Youth to his credit. THEREGOESJOJO, another potential starter, is the Fountain of Youth runner-up and will be making his fifth start. Joining this trio will be BEETHOVEN, third in the Fountain of Youth following a juvenile campaign that netted three victories in five starts, including a win in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club over the Churchill Downs oval, home of the Kentucky Derby; STATELY CHARACTER, who was fifth in the Grade III Holy Bull Stakes, and Sincero.

Gulfstream is expecting at least one runner from the barn of Nick Zito to fill out the field, though the trainer hasn’t given any indication yet as to who that might be.

Heading the list of prospective starters for the Grade II, $150,000 Swale Stakes at 7 furlongs BIG DRAMA, trained by David Fawkes, CUSTOM FOR CARLOS, trained by Eddie Kennealy; the Jim Jerkens-trained PRESTO CHANGE O, and the non-nominated Sabi Sabi.

A full field of 12 could start in the $800,000 Sunland Park Derby in New Mexico on Sunday. The field could have a definite Southern California flavor as trainers Bob Baffert, Doug O’Neill and Mike Machowsky ship prospects to the southeastern New Mexico track for the race previously called the WinStar Derby.

WinStar’s multi-year sponsorship contract for the race ran out last year, but the track upped the purse from $600,000 to $800,000 in hopes of drawing some top-notch prospects. That certainly seems to have occurred as Baffert and O’Neill are expected to send two starters each – all Triple Crown-nominated – and Machowsky will be shipping Kelly Leak, not nominated but only a disqualification away from a Grade I victory in the 2008 Del Mar Futurity.

Baffert’s pair is headed by MAYOR MARV, winner of the Turf Paradise Derby, and could include either MYTHICAL POWER or ZENSATIONAL. O’Neill expects to start MARK S THE COOLER and Scorewithcater, a non-nominee who captured Sunland’s Borderland Derby February 28.

Adding luster to the potential field are MINE THAT BIRD, who was four for five as a juvenile before a disappointing 12th in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and DUMAR, coming to the race from a disappointing fifth in the Borderland Derby. Also expected are non-nominees Santamonicacanyon, Sky Jedi, Smokin’ Legend and Valid Stripes.

At Santa Anita, the $70,000 San Miguel Stakes at 6 furlongs doesn’t figure to offer up any prospects for the Kentucky Derby, catering instead to some late-developing prospects or solid sprinters.

A trip to the Middle East, however, should produce the final prep for the Kentucky Derby for the talented DESERT PARTY, winner of Saratoga’s Grade II Sanford Stakes last year while trained by Eoin Harty and Godolphin Racing’s leading Derby candidate, as he tackles of field of stablemates and some others in the United Arab Emirates Derby at Nad al Sheba in Dubai.

DESERT PARTY, running under the Darley colors of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum while in the United States, was moved to the sheikh’s premier racing stable, Godolphin, following his 2-year-old season and has posted two impressive wins this year in Dubai. He won the Ford Flex Trophy, an allowance race, prior to capturing the Grade III UAE 2000 Guineas February 12.

The Street Cry colt likely will run against stablemate REGAL RANSOM, whom he defeated soundly in the 2000 Guineas, and perhaps JOSE ADAN, also a Godolphin runner who was bought in the United States last year after finishing first but being disqualified in the Arlington-Washington Futurity at Arlington Park.

LATE NOMINATIONS DUE SATURDAY – A number of late nominations to the 2009 Triple Crown are expected by Saturday’s midnight deadline rolls around. A late nomination costs $6,000, 10 times the fee that goes with early nominations, which closed on January 24.

Three major winners along this year’s Triple Crown were not among the early nominees, they being Quality Road in Gulfstream Park’s Grade II Fountain of Youth, Win Willy in Oaklawn Park’s Grade II Rebel Stakes and Musket Man in Tampa Bay Downs’ Tampa Bay Derby. The graded money earned in those races has put all three horses among the top 20 on the list of possible starters for the Kentucky Derby.

Late nominations can be made by contacting the racing office at Churchill Downs or Triple Crown Productions, also at Churchill Downs.

THE WEEK PAST – Victory in Turfway Park’s Grade II, $500,000 Lane’s End Stakes by HOLD ME BACK lent more credence to the well-rounded racing adage, “Mott off the bench.” The winner was making his first start of his 3-year-old season, ending nearly four months without a race. He was last seen finishing fifth in the Grade II Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct Nov. 29.

Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott has spent this year honing the skills of the son of Giant’s Causeway and it showed big time in his Saturday victory, winning by 1 ¾ lengths after coming from the back of the pack to war down FLYING PRIVATE in the final eighth of a mile in the 1 1/8-mile Lane’s End.

Another Hall of Famer, trainer D. Wayne Lukas thrust himself onto the Triple Crown stage with FLYING PRIVATE’s runner-up finish.
The disappointments in the race were co-favorites, at 2-1, WEST SIDE BERNIE and BITTEL ROAD, who finished sixth and 10th, respectively.

The winner will be pointed toward Keeneland’s Grade I, $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at 1 1/8 miles over the Lexington, Ky., oval’s Polytrack surface, with an eye toward the May 2 Kentucky Derby some 75 miles down the road in Louisville.

Also being primed for the Blue Grass Stakes will be trainer John Gosden’s MAAFAZ, winner of Wednesday’s Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes at Kempton Park near London. Victory in the race assures the winner a spot in the Kentucky Derby gate. Gosden, who started Zabaleta (finished 12th) in the 1986 Kentucky Derby while training in Southern California, said he hopes MAAFAZ, owned by Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum, will be able to get into the Blue Grass field, but if not will be trained up to the Derby.

CLOSERS – There reportedly is a possibility that a half-interest in Gotham Stakes winner I WANT REVENGE is in the works. Over the weekend, owner-breeder David Lanzman said such a sale was imminent, according to Daily Racing Form. At the same time, the Form quoted IEAH co-president Michael Iavarone as saying the partnership group is, indeed, interested in the colt. Lanzman said he would retain control in the event of a sale, and the horse would remain with trainer Jeff Mullins. ... Though she’s not a nominee to the Triple Crown yet, Queen Alexandra appears to be on that road. According to a report over the weekend, trainer Hal Wiggins said, “The door is open.”