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Kentucky Derby gets a preview in daunting Florida Derby field

Owner Robert LaPenta is fairly confident he has a colt in Dialed In that is capable of not only making it into the Kentucky Derby field but ending up with the blanket of roses around his neck.

What LaPenta is absolutely certain about, however, is that Sunday's Grade I Florida Derby is hands down the best spot to find out just how correct he is in assessing his horse's ability.

This year's Florida Derby appears to be worth every cent of its $1 million purse as horsemen and critics alike have praised the eight-horse lineup as the best assembly of leading 3-year-olds yet in 2011.

Included in the field for Gulfstream Park's 11⁄8-mile test are five graded stakes winners, all of whom could still be marching toward Kentucky even if they finish off the board in their daunting final prep.

Morning-line favorite Soldat is at the forefront of the group, thanks to his impressive 2-length win in the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 26, an effort in which he defeated multiple graded stakes winner and fellow Florida Derby entrant To Honor and Serve.

LaPenta's Dialed In delivered one of the more visually impressive efforts when he won the Grade III Holy Bull Stakes in just his second career start Jan. 30 while Mike Repole's Stay Thirsty proved he was more than just champion Uncle Mo's stablemate when he took the Grade III Gotham Stakes in his season debut at Aqueduct on March 5.

When Grade II Hutcheson Stakes winner Flashpoint and his wicked fast speed were entered in the Florida Derby rather than the 7-furlong Swale Stakes on the undercard, it added that much more depth to a field that already appeared to be scary good.

"The Florida Derby to me of all of the races thus far and even looking ahead to some of the races that are coming up including the Wood, the Illinois Derby, the Indiana Derby, the Arkansas Derby and even the Blue Grass, to me this is a mini (Kentucky) Derby," LaPenta said. "There are so many good horses in here. I could see almost half of them if not more being in the Derby on the first Saturday in May.

"Obviously we want to see Dialed In run his race, be game, competitive and do well. But this is the toughest race of all of the Derby preps, and I think it's going to tell a lot about some of the leading horses."

Since it is highly likely someone could put in a strong effort and still not win on Sunday, several connections will be looking for a few key elements in their horses' running style as well as results.

On paper, there is ample early speed to be found as Flashpoint, Soldat and To Honor and Serve have all done their best running on the lead while Stay Thirsty has shown the ability to contest the pace as well.

Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin has stated his desire to have Soldat sit off fractions this weekend and even worked the son of War Front behind horses a couple weeks ago to try to prepare him for the kickback.

"It would be nice to face the dirt, which we don't know in a race. We haven't done it," McLaughlin said. "We feel like he can handle it but it would be probably an ideal situation to take dirt, lay off the pace and finish strong to win."

Although To Honor and Serve did rate during his third-place run in the Fountain of Youth, he didn't have nearly the same kick in the stretch as he did when he took his previous three starts in front-running fashion.

Trainer Bill Mott believes that may have been more a product of conditioning than being taken out of his running style and wouldn't mind seeing To Honor and Serve have a target to run at on Sunday.

"He wasn't running off (in the Fountain of Youth). He rated well, and when he was asked to go he responded," Mott said. "Now did he have as big a run as he needed to win the race? No, he didn't. But think he got a lot out of it, and I think he did show that if there is a lot of speed in there that he'll rate and that he'll respond when you ask him."

Whatever happens — or fails to happen — up front will directly affect the late-running Dialed In.

The son of Mineshaft used his one-run style to perfection in taking the Holy Bull but was compromised by a slow pace last time out when he ran second against older horses in a 11⁄8-mile allowance race at Gulfstream on March 6.

"Some people say, 'Oh, he needs a fast pace.' So what? That's fine," said Nick Zito, trainer of Dialed In, who saddled Ice Box to victory in the 2010 Florida Derby. "So he needs a fast pace. He'll get it most of the time. That should be the least of our worries — a fast pace."