HALLANDALE BEACH (AP) — Javier Castellano saw a couple horses in front of him and thought about steering Constitution to the outside in an effort to pass everyone.
Then a gap opened on the rail.
Constitution knew what to do from there, and the Kentucky Derby is his likely reward.
In only his third start, not to mention his first stakes race, Constitution won a fierce stride-for-stride battle down the stretch with Wildcat Red to take the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on Saturday, giving trainer Todd Pletcher’s powerful stable yet another option — and maybe a very real contender — for the Run for the Roses on May 3.
“This colt’s come so far in such a short period of time,” Pletcher said. “You know, three months ago we were not even thinking about this. Everything’s fallen into place. It’s a real tribute to how talented he is and how far he’s been able to come.”
Constitution remained unbeaten, with all three of his victories coming at Gulfstream, where he broke his maiden on Jan. 11. He finished the 1 1-8 miles in 1:49.16 and returned $8.60, $4.20 and $3.60 for the win.
“He’s a super horse,” said jockey Javier Castellano, who could be aboard Constitution again in the Kentucky Derby if he chooses.
Wildcat Red paid $4.80 and $3.40 for second. General a Rod paid $3.40 to show and Cairo Prince, which officially went off at 6-5 as the favorite, was fourth and beaten by nearly nine lengths.
“The great thing about today’s race is we got some experience,” Pletcher said.
Wildcat Red started on the inside and went to the front as expected, with General a Rod settling in second much of the early way. Castellano — who anticipated a different trip for his horse, but audibled nicely — guided Constitution to a spot near the rail and stalked the lead, then with about three furlongs to run thought about finding open space along the outside.
Instead, he stayed put, then took the lead for good with just a couple strides remaining over a very game Wildcat Red.
“It was kind of early and second, I was going to lose a lot of ground,” Castellano said. “So I took my shot and it worked out great.”
Then again, the entire approach with Constitution has seemed to be a high-risk, high-reward proposition.
Pletcher said the plan for Constitution all hinged on the Florida Derby — if he did enough in this race, then it the Triple Crown trail would await. Now it wouldn’t be surprising if he was among the favorites, and remember, Orb used winning the Florida Derby as a springboard toward winning the Kentucky Derby a year ago.
“It was the correct thing to do, give him some time,” Pletcher said.
This is the second year that the 20 entrants to the Kentucky Derby will be determined by points collected from the prep races, and this race will likely go a long way toward shaping that field. Constitution got 100 for the win, Wildcat Red — a horse that was firmly into the Derby mix even before Saturday — took 40 points for second, General a Rod earned 20 for third and Cairo Prince picked up 10 for fourth, increasing his total to 24.
A year ago, it only took 10 points to get into the Derby field, but Cairo Prince still is hardly assured of a spot.
“We feel like we’ll get in,” trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. “And if we don’t, we won’t.”
There were seven other stakes races on Saturday’s card, one of them sparking a huge upset at 49-1. Gamay Noir — beaten by a combined 33½ lengths in her most recent five races — paid $100.20 for winning the Grade 3 Rampart.
The other races were a touch more predictable. In Tune ($4) improved to 3-for-3 by taking the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks; Happy My Way ($6.80) won the Sir Shackleton Stakes; Anjaz ($12) won the Grade 3 Orchid; Hey Leroy ($25.60) won the Grade 3 Appleton; Micromanage ($10.40) won the Grade 3 Skip Away; and Newsdad ($12.60) won the Grade 2 Pan American Stakes.
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