Clarity, thy name is not the Florida Derby. Gulfstream Park's signature Kentucky Derby prep race inspired more questions than usual after a surprise finish Saturday.
Coming into the 11⁄8-mile Florida Derby, eventual race-winner Ice Box and runner-up Pleasant Prince had a combined three wins to their credit and were each beaten by double-digit lengths in the Grade II Fountain of Youth on Feb. 20, their only other try against graded stakes company.
But aside from multiple Grade III winner Rule, who faded to third after setting the early fractions, no other horse in the Florida Derby field owned a stakes win in North America (ninth-place finisher Radiohead won a Group II turf sprint in England last season). Thus, the fact a previously unheralded horse would win should not have come as a shock.
Considering the soft quality of the Florida Derby field, it's hard to say whether Ice Box and Pleasant Prince are classic examples of 3-year-olds rounding into form at the right time or if they merely benefited from the absence of others.
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After originally being pointed for the Florida Derby, the connections of Fountain of Youth Stakes winner Eskendereya opted for the Grade I Wood Memorial on April 3 instead. Jackson Bend and Aikenite, the second- and third-place finishers in the Fountain of Youth, also decided to point for a different prep.
While how much improvement Ice Box and Pleasant Prince have actually made is up for debate, the two are definitely heading into the biggest race of their lives on the upswing — which is about all their connections can ask for.
"Horses at this time of year can take such leaps, improve day-to-day, and I think this horse has been doing that," said Wesley Ward, trainer of Pleasant Prince. "We just have to hope he keeps moving in that direction."
One horse who won't be moving on to the Kentucky Derby is Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Vale of York. Godolphin Racing announced Sunday the colt had suffered a bout of colic and would miss the UAE Derby in Dubai next Saturday.
"We hope Vale Of York makes a full recovery soon but obviously right now, all future plans are on hold for him," Godolphin's racing manager Simon Crisford said in a statement.