This is but one of many prep races of the spring for the new major-league crop of sophomores, and it won't necessarily be the best. But it's the first major ride of the year, a signal of the coming spring rituals.
After today's race, which can be seen on ABC's Wide World of Sports at 5 p.m., everything that happens counts double in the run to Churchill Downs, to the Kentucky Derby and into the everlasting.
Goals are set. Plans are made. Hopes are high. The romance is under way.
If you're a trainer, you've dreamed of having a horse worthy of being here today, whether or not it makes it to Churchill Downs. Part of the fun of the
Kentucky Derby is the spring foreplay that starts here.
"Oh, yeah," said Jimmy Croll, a Philadelphia-bred trainer who has been saddling winners for 50 years. "This is where it starts - the fun and the disappointment."
Especially the disappointment.
"A lot of good racehorses have been ruined, misused right here, trying to make Kentucky Derby horses out of them," Croll said. "It's easy to get caught up in the magic."
If you are Scotty Schulhofer, a trainer for about 20 years, who trains 1991's brightest star, Fly So Free, you know that. But if you are Schulhofer, you also have to be feeling like a poker player who has been dealt a pat hand.
Schulhofer does not smirk. He does not strut. He is not loud. He just wears a gently smiling, matter-of-fact face of confidence.
Ladies and gentlemen, he seems to saying, Fly So Free will have to be kidnapped to keep him out of the Kentucky Derby. And the experts seem to agree. If the Kentucky Derby were to be run today, Fly So Free would be about 8-5.
As it is, the chestnut Time For Change colt is the early 3-5 favorite in today's race, practically a foregone conclusion in the field of eight.
Among the seven challengers expected to run in 80-degree sunshine, two hold special interest - Florida-bred gelding Jackie Wackie, first in each of his nine races (but disqualified in one), and Hansel, a class horse whose prospects dipped when he emerged from the Feb. 25 Fountain of Youth out of the money and bleeding.
Hansel will run for the first time today on Lasix, an anti-bleeding medication that, some studies show, enhances the performance of some horses, especially those using it for the first time.
Jackie Wackie opened at 5-2 and Hansel at 8-1.
The rest, if you can believe experts, have no chance, with the possible exception of Strike The Gold, an Alydar colt from Calumet Farm, listed at 12-1. Link - a colt so little, he should be racing at the Hollywood dog track, says his trainer, Howard Tesher - is 15-1. Sir Bordeaux and Shoot To Kill are 20-1 and Man Alright 30-1.
Croll, who has had more than 50 stakes winners but only one Kentucky Derby horse in 50 years (Bet Twice in 1987), said he had made a study of horses who have come out of the Kentucky Derby.
"And you never hear of most of them again," he said. "You watch it."
Croll will skip the Derby again this year. He could put Robert P. Levy's unbeaten Greek Costume (3-0) in the chase, just as he could have done with his champion sprinter, Housebuster, last year, just as he did years ago, regrettably, with the now-famous Mr. Prospector.
"Mr. Prospector taught me a lesson," Croll said yesterday. "Against my better judgment, we tried to make a Derby horse out of him and he was rushed, overextended, and he got hurt in the Derby Prep. He became a champion stud, but I've always wondered how he would have turned out on the track if we hadn't rushed him.
"I would only go to the Kentucky Derby now," Croll said, "if I had the first or second horse. I don't want to go with the fourth or fifth best. But I understand the Derby excitement."
In 1987, Croll said it took him 30 seconds to catch his breath after Bet Twice finished second to Alysheba in the Kentucky Derby.
Instead of being in the Florida Derby limelight today, Croll is a central figure in two of the supporting races on the 12-race card - with 4-year-old Housebuster in the seven-furlong, $50,000 Deputy Minister Handicap and with 3- year-old Greek Costume in the $75,000 Swale Stakes.
The Deputy Minister may be the best race of the day, with two of last year's glamour horses making their 1991 debuts - sprint champion Housebuster and last year's 3-year-old champion, darling of the 1990 Kentucky Derby, Unbridled.
"That's the race," said Craig Perret, who will ride Strike The Gold in the Florida Derby and who rides both Housebuster and Unbridled regularly and will be aboard Housebuster in the Deputy Minister.
Unbridled, not a sprinter, will be playing into Housebuster's hands.
"But that's not the point," Perret said. "Unbridled needs a race, and and this is a good warm-up. It won't matter if he doesn't win. It matters that he runs good. It will help set him up for the year."
"This will be interesting. Two champions. They've never met before."