Put aside the decision Gulfstream Park stewards made after last month's Fountain of Youth Stakes and focus only on the effort put forth by Upstart, and it's easy to see why trainer Rick Violette Jr.'s confidence is not wavering heading into Saturday's Grade I Florida Derby.
As expected that day, Upstart regressed off his 51/2-length win in the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes. The dark bay ridgling fought with a slow, tiring track that tested the fact he was under-trained coming into the race. And still, he hit the finish line 23/4 lengths in front of his challengers — bumps notwithstanding.
Itsaknockout was awarded the win via disqualification. Upstart has prevailed in the minds of those who think he was still the best horse in a race when he wasn't at his peak, and that he will be even more troublesome now that Violette has him primed for the 11⁄8-mile Florida Derby.
Like most trainers, Violette shies from comparing his charges past and present. Having brought Read the Footnotes to the Kentucky Derby in 2004 and saddled the brave Samraat to a fifth-place outing last year, Violette does say that Ralph Evans' Upstart is the most complete 3-year-old he has gotten to this stage.
"Upstart's just awfully talented," Violette said. "He obviously has a will to win, as he showed in the Fountain of Youth. He doesn't need his racetrack. He's pretty adaptable as far as tactics.
"If there's no speed Saturday we could be on the lead or we could be 10 lengths back if there's a ton of speed, and I think he's effective both ways. He's maybe a little bit more well rounded, but Samraat and Read the Footnotes were pretty cool, too."
Where Violette said he took a conservative path between the Holy Bull and the Fountain of Youth — "let him refuel a little bit" — he let Upstart roll in his final major work last Saturday when he covered 5 furlongs in 59.55 seconds at Palm Meadows Training Center.
"You know, we're all talking about the Derby, but this is a pretty important race here on Saturday, and you need to come over with a pretty big intention of getting there first," Violette said. "He kind of knows we're planning on something. He doesn't know exactly what day, but he's ready to roll."
The Derby Dozen
1. Dortmund: The big man clicked off another sound work, covering 6 furlongs in 1:12 at Santa Anita on March 21 in preparation for the Grade I Santa Anita Derby. It says something when those trying to best you concede even their best may not be enough. "I think Dortmund is the best 3-year-old because he hasn't missed a beat," said Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who will ride Bolo in the Santa Anita Derby. "He's the only one that's been marching straight through. I think he'll want every bit of a mile and a quarter and he's already proven he likes Churchill Downs."
2. American Pharoah: Like his stablemate Dortmund, the reigning juvenile champion has potential rivals speaking volumes about his ability. On a national teleconference this week, Tom Amoss, trainer of Louisiana Derby entrant War Story, said he was especially taken with American Pharoah's win in the Grade II Rebel Stakes in that he could see the colt quicken with the naked eye. "I'd have to say American Pharoah ran a very, very special race that day, and that's the kind of race that if you can carry it over to the first Saturday in May, I don't see anybody beating him," Amoss said. "I'm fully aware he controlled everything on the front end, but you just don't see horses noticeably quicken like you saw him quicken. The last one I can remember like that was (two-time Horse of the Year) Wise Dan."
3. Carpe Diem: According to the probables released by Keeneland, there could be as many as 10 challengers for Carpe Diem to face in next Saturday's Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. The larger the field, the more potential for trouble, but the son of Giant's Causeway faced a 12-horse field when he won the Grade I Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland last October and came through traffic — if not very wide — during his runner-up effort in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Will be the clear class of the Blue Grass field even if he regresses off his Tampa Bay Derby win.
4. Upstart: He's ready for this latest test, but will have to overcome the outside No. 9 post in the Florida Derby. "It's not ideal," Violette said. "It's a little longer run to the first turn. You just have to deal with it. That's what the jock's up there for."
5. Firing Line: What a difference no Dortmund and a break in class can make. Firing Line looked like a kid in a candy store as he strolled to a 141/4-length win — you read that margin of victory right — in the Grade III Sunland Derby last Sunday. Jockey Gary Stevens remarked after the race how professional the son of Line of David was and that "he can do well at the next level." Considering the battle he had with Dortmund in the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity last December and the Grade III Robert B. Lewis in February, not too concerned about him having it too easy in his final prep. There is concern over the six-week gap he'll have now going into the Kentucky Derby. But this horse deserved a nice flashy win and there is no doubt he can look the divisional leaders in the eye.
6. El Kabeir: Not that this horse needs much added fitness in advance of the Wood Memorial, but he put down a 5-furlong move in a bullet :59.90 over Belmont's training track March 22. There are distance questions in his pedigree, but we've seen a lot of runners outlast what their bloodlines said they could in the Kentucky Derby (the 11/2-mile Belmont Stakes is another story). Think about Noble's Promise from 2010, who was clearly a sprinter/miler type but ran fifth in the Derby on guts and class. And El Kabeir has mettle in spades.
7. Far From Over: Worked 5 furlongs in 1:01.76 at Palm Beach Downs on March 21. Trainer Todd Pletcher is a master at getting horses to run well fresh, so the gap between his win in the Grade III Withers on Feb. 7 and his expected start in the Wood Memorial on April 4 isn't too worrisome.
8. Itsaknockout: Saturday's Florida Derby is his chance to silence those who question whether he should have been put up in the Fountain of Youth. Violette has Upstart pretty well cranked for this effort so if Itsaknockout beats him fair and square this time, questions about his quality will become moot.
9. International Star: The Louisiana Derby is his to lose. And even if he regresses, he is going on to Derby Day with the amount of points he has. Owner Ken Ramsey finally has a dirt horse who can stalk and finish with a pedigree that has Derby success in it.
10. Prospect Park: Raised a lot of eyebrows last Saturday when he put in a monster 6-furlong work in 1:11 flat at San Luis Rey. Trainer Cliff Sise Jr. called the drill "unbelievable," adding that the son of Tapit would have a 5-furlong breeze Saturday as he readies for the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 4. "Right now, I'm as happy as I could be," Sise said. "He's doing great."
11. Far Right: Trainer Ron Moquett said he plans to breeze Far Right this weekend as he readies for the Arkansas Derby on April 11. Though his sire Notional was most effective at a mile, his grandsire In Excess is a great source of speed and stamina, having won the Met Mile and the 11/4-mile Suburban Handicap in back-to-back outings in 1991.
12. Mr. Z: As his Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas says, one of these days he's going to put it together in one of these big stakes with his latest chance coming in Saturday's Louisiana Derby. Will be interesting to see how he responds to not having blinkers and, out of post No. 2, he's going to have to use his natural speed. Admittedly, even if he gets beat, as long as he hits the board again, those of us drinking his Kool-Aid will probably find reason to take another sip come Derby Day.
THE NEXT DOZEN
Bolo, Ocho Ocho Ocho, Frosted, War Story, Dubai Sky, Materiality, Frammento, Ami's Flatter, Keen Ice, One Lucky Dane, Madefromlucky, Gorgeous Bird.