SOUTHEAST/UNBEATEN DUNKIRK, QUALITY ROAD HEAD FLORIDA DERBY

Last year’s running of the $750,000 Florida Derby (Grade I) at Gulfstream Park saw the emergence of a major star when unbeaten Big Brown romped to an easy victory and became the favorite for the $2 million-guaranteed Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (GI). Big Brown would later score an emphatic Kentucky Derby win.

The favorite for this year’s “Run for the Roses” on May 2 could again be determined by the results of the Florida Derby, which will be run Saturday at the Hallandale, Fla. track. The morning line choices for this year’s renewal are the unbeaten Dunkirk, a $3.7 million yearling purchase, and Quality Road, the impressive winner of in Gulfstream Park’s Fountain of Youth (GII).

Nine horses were entered in the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby, but the biggest buzz surrounds the Todd Pletcher-trained Dunkirk, a son of Unbridled’s Song who has won both of his career starts this year at Gulfstream Park. Eclipse Award winner Garrett Gomez will fly in from California to ride Dunkirk.

Pletcher also entered Europe, who finished fourth in his lone career start, to serve as pacesetter and guard against the prospect that the speedy Quality Road could roll to an uncontested early lead.

“We’re mindful of the possible lack of pace,” said Pletcher. “We want to make sure that it’s at least an honestly run race.”

Quality Road, a winner of two of three career races, stretches out to a two-turn distance for the first time under jockey John Velazquez. He has the natural speed to be close from the start, and the surprising presence of Europe grabbed the attention of Jimmy Jerkens, who trains Quality Road.

“I’d rather not see him in there,” Jerkens said. “But I don’t think my horse is the type who, if he sees one in front of him, will tear after him.”

Another contender is Theregoesjojo, a stretch-runner trained by Ken McPeek who handed

Quality Road his only career defeat in a January allowance race. Three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Kent Desormeaux will ride Theregoesjojo, who was a late-running second the Fountain of Youth.

The Florida Derby will be telecast live on ESPN as part of the “NTRA Racing to the Kentucky Derby” series. The race is scheduled to air from 5-6 p.m. (EDT).

Missing from the Florida Derby will be Kentucky Jockey Club (GII) winner Beethoven, who is likely out of Kentucky Derby consideration after suffering what is believed to be a minor tendon injury.
Earlier on the Florida Derby program at Gulfstream Park, Delta Jackpot (GIII) winner Big Drama returns to competition as the morning line favorite in the $150,000 Swale (GIII).

Harold Queen’s colt has won five consecutive races but was knocked off the Kentucky Derby Trail when he suffered a bone bruise earlier this year that required minor surgery. Trainer David Fawkes said that Big Drama missed too much training time after that injury to be considered for the Kentucky Derby, and downplayed the prospect of a Derby bid was raised earlier this week.

“I don't even want to think about the Derby right now,” Fawkes told Daily Racing Form. “I'm just happy to have him back running again and in this race on Saturday.”

Big Drama’s Swale opponents include Sunshine Millions Dash winner This One’s for Phil, Brave Victory, B Z Warrior and Custom for Carlos.

The card also features an appearance by Nicanor, the 3-year-old full brother to ill-fated 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, in a one-mile maiden race. The Michael Matz-trained Nicanor was a solid runner-up in his second career start and looms as the favorite to pick up his first career victory.

DUBAI/DESERT PARTY HEAVY FAVORITE IN $2 MILLION UAE DERBY

Dubai-based racing powerhouse Godolphin has not participated in a Kentucky Derby since 2002, but an expected strong performance by favored Desert Party in Saturday’s $2 million UAE Derby would send the son of Street Cry to Churchill Downs as perhaps the stable’s strongest threat since it launched its pursuit of America’s greatest race.

The winner of the UAE 2000 Guineas and last year’s Sanford (GII) at Saratoga is a strong favorite to defeat a dozen rivals. Regular jockey Frankie Dettori will ride be for trainer Saeed bin Suroor.

Desert Party’s sire, Street Cry, traveled to Churchill Downs for the 2001 Kentucky Derby, but was knocked out of the race by injury. He bounced back in 2002 win the Dubai World Cup (GI) and returned to Churchill Downs to score a dominant victory in the Stephen Foster Handicap. But Street Cry may be best known in the U.S. as the sire of 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense.

“I liked him from day one,” bin Suroor told Thoroughbred Times. “He is very similar to Street Cry, very calm and relaxed…he is already more like a 4-year-old and will only get better.”

WEST/BAFFERT, PEGRAM’S MAYOR MARV FAVORED AS SUNLAND

A record 12 3-year-olds were entered in Sunday’s $800,000 Sunland Derby at New Mexico’s Sunland Park, with Mike Pegram’s homebred California invader Mayor Marv favored to take home the winner’s share of the purse.

Trained by three-time Kentucky Derby winner Bob Baffert, the Distorted Humor colt comes into the 1 1/16-mile off back-to-back wins that include an easy 4 ½-length victory in the Turf Paradise Derby. The speedy Mayor Marv, the 7-2 morning line choice ridden by Victor Espinoza, is one of two Baffert runners. Mythical Power, a 10-1 risk ridden by Garrett Gomez, is the other Baffert-trained entrant.

“Both horses are working well,” Baffert said. “Both do things differently, but it’s a race I’m looking forward to watching and seeing how they do.”

Others contenders in the Sunland Derby, which was formerly known as the WinStar Derby, including Canadian 2-year-old champion Mine That Bird, Kelly Leak, Mark S The Cooler, and Advice.

Santa Anita Derby Favorites Work – Three of the favorites for next week’s $750,000 Santa Anita Derby (GI) worked on Wednesday over the synthetic Cushion Track surface at Santa Anita.

Sham (GIII) winner The Pamplemousse breezed a solid six furlongs in 1:13 under regular jockey Alex Solis, while Pioneerof the Nile, a winner of three consecutive stakes races for trainer Bob Baffert, worked the same distance in a sharp 1:11.40 – the fastest move of 12 at the distance.

Northern California-based Chocolate Candy, winner of the El Camino Real Derby (GIII) at Golden Gate Fields, worked a mile in 1:38.60 under jockey Joel Rosario, who will ride the son of Candy Ride in the Santa Anita Derby for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.

SOUTH/HAMAZING DESTINY RUNS FRIDAY AT OAKLAWN PARK

After a disappointing eighth-place run behind 1-2 finishers Win Willy and Old Fashioned in the Rebel (GIII), the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Hamazing Destiny drops back into allowance company in Friday’s eighth race at Oaklawn Park.

Hamazing Destiny was purchased by Lukas for Westrock Stable following a 10 ½-length maiden win earlier in the meet at the Hot Springs, Ark. track.

EAST/WOOD FIELD TAKES SHAPE

The top two finishers from the Gotham (GIII) – I Want Revenge and Imperial Colony – head a likely field of six or seven horses for the $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 4. But third-place Gotham finisher Mr. Fantasy will not be back for a rematch. West Point Thoroughbreds’ Terry Finley said Mr. Fantasy is now being pointed to the April 25 Withers (GIII).