With less than two months remaining before the Kentucky Derby, Friday's Islamorada Handicap at Gulfstream Park is a proving ground for Derby Trail hopefuls.
Two of the hopefuls are from Todd Pletcher's barn, Materiality and Stanford.
“I think that’s what we’re trying to determine in this race, and this race will help decide what their immediate futures are,” Pletcher said. “If they were to both to run well in here, then it could lead them into one of the major preps next time, but if not, then we’ll probably step back and go a little softer route.”
Stanford, a son of Malibu Moon, enters the 1 1/8-mile Islamorada off an allowance score at Gulfstream on Feb. 8 in his sophomore debut and first start since the Saratoga Special. Stanford received a 92 Beyer Speed Figure for his 1 1/2-length victory over stablemate Blame Jim, who's entered in the Gotham Stakes on Saturday.
Stanford has been assigned highweight of 121 pounds, between three and six pounds more than his five rivals.
Materiality will start for only the second time. The $400,000 2-year-old purchase romped in the slop to begin his career, taking a maiden special weight at Gulfstream by 4 1/4 lengths on Jan. 11.
Both have been training steadily at Palm Beach Downs. Stanford turned in a quick four-furlong breeze on Feb. 21, clocked at :47.62 (1/20). Materiality posted a bullet of his own the following day, five furlongs in 1:00.19, breezing.
Neither Stanford nor Materiality has ever raced beyond 6 1/2 furlongs, but Pletcher has done well stretching his trainees out from sprints to routes. He’s currently winning at a 26 percent clip when making such moves.
“They’ve both trained well,” Pletcher said. “In a perfect world, we’d have found an intermediate step between their last races and a mile and an eighth, but this is sort of the only option we had, and we felt like, timing-wise, it was good for both of them. Hopefully, if they perform well, it could lead them into bigger races in their next starts.”
Pletcher said the colts' inexperience is more of a concern than distance.
“The distance itself isn’t such a concern,” Pletcher said. “It’s just a little concerning from the standpoint that they’ve only had one six-furlong race this year, and Materiality has only had one six-furlong race in his entire career, but historically, those kind of moves of stretching out off one short race has worked out pretty well for us, so hopefully that will be the case here.”
High Noon Rider will also be looking to prove he is deserving of a shot at the Road to the Derby. The son of Distorted Humor most recently contested Gulfstream’s Lambholm South Holy Bull, but he was pulled up approaching the stretch.
“He’s been doing fine,” trainer George Weaver said. “We really don’t know why he got pulled up. We don’t fault Joel (Rosario). Obviously, he felt something. But he’s been training well, so we’ll give it another shot.”
High Noon Rider began his career on turf, but his first victory came when his scheduled start was taken off the grass and run over a fast main track at Aqueduct last November. The colt seemed to like the move to the new surface, coming away with a game head victory and earning an 85 Beyer, a number 14 points higher than his previous highest race figure. The colt has remained on dirt, following up his maiden breaking win with a third-place finish in the Springboard Mile.
“The first time we ran him on the dirt, it was an off-the-turf event, and his biggest race to date,” Weaver said. “So we thought, ‘Well, it’s nice to see what he can do on the dirt,’ so we ran him over at Remington, and he ran well, and we were looking forward to the Holy Bull, but things just didn’t work out. He’s trained well and handled the dirt well. I thought this spot looked like something that wouldn’t be quite as demanding as the Holy Bull and will let us gauge where we are with him.”
Weaver continues to keep his options open with his trainee.
“If he were to win or run a big speed figure and finish second, if he runs a quality race in there, we would definitely think about the Florida Derby and other prep races,” he said.
Also in the Islamorada field are Tradesman, who defeated recent John Battaglia Memorial Stakes winner Royal Son in a maiden contest on Jan. 8, only to be disqualified and placed sixth for interference; Quimet, first and second since switching to dirt in 2015; and Lucky Delfino.
The Islamorada Handicap is the third race on Friday's 11-race program.
Edited Gulfstream Park release with additional content by Dick Downey