Last fall, when his colt Lord Avie was rolling to the 2-year-old championship, Danny Perlsweig was chatting with a longtime friend and fellow trainer, Ben Perkins.
Perkins said all the proper, nice things about Lord Avic, but added a caveat: "Dan, when you get to the Florida Derby, you're going to look up and see a big bay sucker next to you. And you're not going to beat that horse."
The bay colt to whom Perkins referred was named Five Star Flight. At the time he had never started a race. Lord Avie had already earned hundreds of thousands of dollars. "We'd better get a net for you, Ben," Perlsweig said, laughing.
But no one is questioning Perkins' sanity today. He was prescient. While Lord Avie is still the nominal favorite for Friday's $226,750 Florida Derby, Five Star Flight is probably the horse to beat. He may be one of the most gifted members of his generation.
Perkins had seen special qualities in Five Star Flight before he ever ran. "He was a beautiful, well-balanced horse. And he worked fast even when he seemed to be going slow." The colt confirmed Perkins' opinion of him when he won his first two starts before losing a stakes race, but it was not until he came to Gulfstream Park that he fully demonstrated his ability to more objective observers.
On Jan. 21, in the seven-furlong Floridian Handicap, Five Star Flight chased the fastest 3-year-old in the state, Spirited Boy, and ran him down after a half-mile. Then he cruised away from all the stretch runners, covering the distance in 1:22 2/5. Most students of speed handicapping would agree he ran faster that day than Lord Avie or any of the other nine entrants in the Florida Derby have ever run in their lives.
Because a slight fever set back his training, Five Star Flight has not raced since that victory. thus he will face a formidable challenge Friday. He will meet the toughest opposition of his career -- not only Lord Avie, but also the colts who beat the champion two weeks ago, Akureyri and Pleasant Colony. He will attempt to go 1 1/8 miles, never having raced farther than seventh-eighths of a mile. And he will attempt to do all this coming off a six-week absence from competition.
Perkins thinks Five Star Flight is capable of such a feat, and his exhuberance is not that of a man who has never seen a good horse before. Last year he trained one of the best older thoroughbreds in the country, Silent Cal, who earned more than $400,000 and was syndicated for $1.6 million when he went to stud. And yet, having watched these two horses together, Perkins believes they are a breed apart. "I think Five Star Flight could spot Silent Cal 10 or 12 lengths and beat him," he said.
Perkins acknowledged: "He still has to prove he can go 1 1/8 miles." But he added, "I've been training him six months for this race. He's fit to go from here to Garden State and back. I believe in my heart that Lord Avie can't beat him. It wouldn't surprise me if he wins pulled up."
If Five Star Flight does that, the sport will have an authentic new star.