LOUISVILLE — It figured for trainer Rick Violette Jr. that even trying to get graded stakes winner Upstart out of Florida was hit with drama.
"There were issues leaving, there were really bad thunderstorms and the plane couldn't land," Violette said of the vessel that belatedly carried his charge and Grade I Wood Memorial winner, Frosted, to Louisville on Tuesday. "They had to wait to where they had a window they thought they could land, load the horses and get out."
With all due respect to the Sunshine State, Violette is cautiously optimistic that getting away from Hallandale Beach's Gulfstream Park and its tiring surface will be the difference maker for Upstart as he attempts to run the race of his life in the 141st Kentucky Derby on Saturday.
Flashback for a moment to late January. Unbeaten Dortmund had yet to make his season debut and juvenile champion American Pharoah was more than week away from recording his first workout of 2015. Sitting atop the winterbook Derby hype machine was Upstart, the third-place finisher in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile who had strolled to a 51/2-length victory in the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 24.
The next two starts are where things started to go off kilter. Though he crossed the wire 23/4 lengths in front in the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 21, he was disqualified to second for interference with Itsaknockout in the lane when all appeared to be struggling over a deep, tiring Gulfstream surface.
Though Violette considered sending the ridgling to New York for his final prep, he ultimately kept him in Florida. He ended up fuming when Upstart finished second to Materiality in the Grade I Florida Derby and didn't even get the benefit of a stewards' inquiry despite being bothered in the stretch as they all labored home over another tiring surface that produced the slowest time for the race since 1955.
Given that Violette watched Frosted, whom Upstart bested in the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth, thrive during his victory in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, he is taking that as a sign that, if nothing else, the Gulfstream surface put some toughness into those coming off it.
"He's supposed to really, really have fun on this racetrack," Violette said of Upstart before sending him out for his first gallop at Churchill on Wednesday morning. "Frosted ran a super race in the Wood getting out of there (Florida) and (trainer Kiaran McLaughlin) has been batting about 50 percent since getting out of Florida. So I'm hoping that bodes well for us. We're deserving of a little break."
Upstart nearly had his Derby venture derailed even before flight delays kicked in.
The dark bay stunner missed a scheduled breeze on April 11 after spiking a fever. Within a couple days, he was back to his normal self and earned the go-ahead for Louisville when he threw down two straight bullet moves, working 4 furlongs in :47.40 on April 17 and 5 furlongs in :59.95 April 25 at Palm Meadows Training Center.
"(It showed me) that he's still at the high level that you need to be," said Violette, who saddled Samraat to a fifth-place finish in the Derby last year. "He's really battle-hardened. I don't know what I'd do to tweak something.
"He has a lot of talent and numbers-wise he's run very fast. He's very tactical. If he has the heart that Samraat has, and I think he does, we could have some fun."
Frosted takes to the track
Wood Memorial hero Frosted had a steady gallop over the Churchill Downs track one day after arriving from Florida for his attempt to give both trainer McLaughlin and owner Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum their first victories in the Kentucky Derby.
"I think the biggest (change) for him was the track difference," said McLaughlin talking about Frosted going from a fourth-place finish in the Fountain of Youth to his 2-length Wood Memorial win. "Watching the Florida Derby, I was happy we weren't in there because it was so demanding and tiring of a track. We were happy we went to Aqueduct."
Ocho Ocho Ocho breezes
Delta Jackpot winner Ocho Ocho Ocho had an easy 3-furlong breeze in :38.40 under exercise rider Amie Williams.
"Got a little something out of it," trainer Jim Cassidy said. "I didn't want anything too aggressive and I thought she did a good job."