There is something to be said for standing still in the eye of a storm while the winds are gusting all around and casualties begin to mount.
Since his victory in the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 25, Cairo Prince has been honing himself on the workout tab and thus holding his ground near the top of the 3-year-old division as the grind of the Kentucky Derby trail claimed one would-be contender after another.
The decision to freshen Cairo Prince heading into Saturday's Grade I, $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park was made with long-term fortunes in mind. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin has seen enough injuries and results in that time to validate that decision, but he is as anxious as anyone to see what happens when his top 3-year-old prospect re-enters the storm.
He'll find out Saturday if Cairo Prince is the same Cairo Prince that impressed eight weeks ago. The gray or roan colt was installed as the 9-5 morning-line favorite for the Florida Derby after drawing post No. 3 in the eight-horse field entered Wednesday.
The sophomore division looks little like it did when Cairo Prince crossed the wire 53/4 lengths in front during his sublime Holy Bull outing. Ailments have sidelined well-regarded horses Honor Code — who beat Cairo Prince by a nose in last year's Remsen — Top Billing and Havana to name a few while fellow Florida Derby entrants Wildcat Red and General a Rod have leapt up to command respect off their 1-2 finish in the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes last month.
Throughout that time, Lexington native McLaughlin says Cairo Prince has continued to act and train like a horse he says is unlike any he has conditioned.
"Mainly, we don't want any changes because he's a very special horse doing great, and everything continues to be great with him," said McLaughlin, who trains Cairo Prince for Sheikh Mohammed's Darley, Harvey Clarke, Craig Robertson III, Paul Braverman and J. Terrence Murray. "We thought we might skip a work because we had quite a bit of time, but he was doing so well we decided to work every Saturday.
"We are pretty anxious and we need to hit the board probably to make sure we get enough points for the Kentucky Derby (he has 14 points currently). But we're in a good spot (in post No. 3) with speed on the inside and outside of us. We're happy. He's doing well."
McLaughlin said Wednesday that should rain drench the Gulfstream Park track, he has a plane booked to head to New York for the Grade I Wood Memorial on April 5. He added, though, that "most likely we're going to run" Saturday.
When asked who of his past charges could compare to Cairo Prince, the only name McLaughlin pulled up was his 2006 Horse of the Year Invasor.
Were it not for a questionable ride in last November's Remsen and the fact he carried 6 pounds more than Honor Code that day, Cairo Prince would probably be unbeaten in his four starts. While Gulfstream Park's main track has had a perceived speed bias this winter, Cairo Prince has a tactical style that isn't dependent on what is happening in front of him.
"Back in June, I would say he just was working effortlessly and doing things that everyday horses don't do; galloping out strong and not getting tired," McLaughlin said during a teleconference this week. "Sometimes horses mentally are not as sound as they are physically, but he has both."
Wildcat Red stretched his speed around two turns for the first time in winning the Fountain of Youth and is expected to be up front again having drawn the rail for Saturday.
"The pace is supposed to be slower. I think the slower he goes, the further he can go," said Jose Garoffalo, trainer of Wildcat Red. "I'm not worried about the extra half of a furlong in the race — that's going to be in the favor of my horse."
General a Rod in post No. 6 has the option of watching what both Wildcat Red and unbeaten Constitution (post 4) do, so McLaughlin said he won't be surprised if Cairo Prince ends up rating in fifth or sixth.
"He's ready to perform a top race; an A-plus race," McLaughlin said. "We just have had 60 days of great training. We haven't missed a day ... and we hope the next few days go as well."