Sixteen horse trainers, seduced somewhat by the glint of the $500,000 purse offered by the Florida Derby folks, have entered their steeds in the 35th version of the race at Gulfstream Park Saturday.
It is for 3-year-olds, of course, at 1 1/8 miles, and, as usual, has certain Triple Crown implications. Fourteen times, Florida Derby winners have gone on to top the field in the Kentucky Derby, a dozen have won Preaknesses and eight have gone the winning route in the Belmont. So the Florida Derby maintains a certain pride.
The colt who is supposed to win it all Saturday, although this is not certain, is Snow Chief, who was flown in late this week from California, where he has been the darling of the winner's circle. Unbeaten, even unextended in his last three races at shorter distances and winner of five of his last six, he will go to the post the heavy favorite.
The current wisdom is that Snow Chief will have little to beat on Saturday beyond Mogambo, the recent impressive winner of a seven-furlong allowance race at Gulfstream, and Papal Power, a beaten 8-to-5 favorite in the recent Fountain of Youth Stakes here. Papal Power is a surprise entry. Trainer Charley Peoples tried to explain away his last defeat by saying his colt finished sore, but a half-hour before the deadline Thursday he dropped the name into the entry box.
That is supposed to be the race: Snow Chief, Mogambo, Papal Power and, perhaps, Glo. The other 12 are rated, tentatively, as also-rans, their stables' eyes less on the $300,000 winner's share than on the $100,000 for second, $50,000 for third, $35,000 for fourth and $15,000 for fifth.
The odds of 8 to 1 and 12 to 1 against them, respectively, are no compliment to My Prince Charming and Ensign Rhythm, each a winner of a division of the Fountain of Youth, which usually is rated as a stepping stone to something more important.
Melvin Stute, Snow Chief's trainer, airily dismissed the significance of the charge that California colts don't do well when they travel east, away from their cardboard, lightning-fast tracks. At Thursday's pre-Derby breakfast for trainers, Stute said, "My colt has been telling me he can run on any kind of a track."
On Saturday, Snow Chief will be running in blinkers that could be described as tinted an Outrageous Pink. This came about after his last defeat, four races ago, when jockey Alexis Solis suggested the colt would do better in blinkers.
Stute gives Solis a nod for that proposal. He also trusts his rider to the point that Saturday in the paddock he will merely tell him, "Use your own judgment." This message will not be as brief as the one that will be given Mykawa's rider Herb McCauley by trainer Larry Jennings: "Good luck."
Both Snow Chief and Mogambo will be trying to outrun their genes Saturday. Snow Chief's sire, Reflected Glory, who once won a Flamingo Stakes, has been a dud at stud and stands for $200,000 per romance.
Mogambo is a Mr. Prospector colt bred for sprinting, and will have to stretch his endowed early speed to win at a distance. Yet in what appeared to be an accident of genetics, Mr. Prospector did sire Conquistador Cielo, a Belmont winner at 1 1/2 miles.
Mogambo, as the second choice, is still the enigma of the field. Last week, he had to be driven hard by Angel Cordero to beat a mediocre group in a seven-furlong allowance after spurning the Fountain of Youth the same day. But Mogambo probably will be the handsomest thing in the race, this chestnut beauty, who, as the even-money favorite in the rich Breeders' Cup last year, got into early trouble and had to be pulled up by Cordero.
Gulfstream's assistant starters were alerted last week to the problem of Mogambo's behavior and the task of getting him lined up for the race. It took three men to move Mogambo into the gate. But Mogambo could make good use of the No. 1 post position he drew for Saturday's race, with the rail favored here. Snow Chief will need to hustle from his No. 12 post.
Mogambo is coupled with Glo as an entry, due to owner Peter Brant's part interest in Glo, who as a son of Northern Dancer by a Buckpasser mare may lay claim to being the best-bred of the entire 16. Glo is coming off a glowing 11-length win here in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race, and will draw some support.
At the trainers' breakfast, the charmer was Newcomb Green, trainer of Prince Charming. Asked if his colt could run with the likes of Snow Chief and Mogambo, he said, "Let's wait and find out."
When the next questioner asked him the unnecessary question about the possibility that the big field could play a role in the race's outcome, Green deflated him instantly, saying that, "The more horses in the race, the more horses you have to beat."