Multiple Graded-Stakes Winner Tabbed 9-5 Morning-Line Favorite Field of 11 Entered in Saturday’s Historic $1 Million Triple Crown Prep
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – Antonio Sano will saddle Gunnevera for a scheduled start in Saturday’s $1 million Xpressbet.com Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park with the lifelong dream of his father fresh in his mind.
Seven years after leaving his native Venezuela, Sano will be living that dream when multiple-stakes winner Gunnevera faces 10 other 3 year-olds entered Wednesday in the 66th running of Gulfstream’s signature event that will serve as a final steppingstone to this year’s Kentucky Derby (G1).
“When I was a kid, my father said, ‘One of these years maybe I’ll win the Kentucky Derby,’” said Sano, a third-generation horseman. “Every day in Venezuela, I followed the racing here in America. Now I have the opportunity to win the race. In Venezuela, the Kentucky Derby is a big deal.”
Currently atop the Road to the Kentucky Derby standings on points, Peacock Racing Stables’ Gunnevera has been installed as the 9-5 morning-line favorite for the Florida Derby.
“The horse is a blessing. This is the biggest opportunity in my life,” Sano said. “It’s a new life. Venezuela is history. Now I am here in America. I’m very proud and excited.”
The 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby, which will highlight a card with nine stakes worth $2.45 million in purses, has produced the winners of 58 Triple Crown races, including 23 Kentucky Derby champions. Nyquist emerged undefeated from last year’s Florida Derby with a 1 ¼-length victory and went on to win the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs five weeks later.
Purchased for $16,000 at the 2015 Keeneland September Sale, Gunnevera is a son of Dialed In, who captured the 2011 Florida Derby.
“I liked the sire for long distance. I like my horses for long distance. I liked his stride; his stride was very long,” Sano said. “Maybe it was because it was the first time for Dialed Ins that he was not more expensive. Right now, horses by Dialed In are more expensive. The Dialed Ins have been running very good.”
Gunnevera graduated from the maiden ranks at Gulfstream July 16 in his third start after finishing behind Three Rules in his debut last June and the Birdonthewire Stakes three weeks later. The Kentucky-bred colt followed up his graduation with a 5 ¾-length triumph in the Saratoga Special (G2) in August. He took a step back with an off-the-board finish in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland but returned to winning form while romping in the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot (G3) in November.
In his 3-year-old debut, Gunnevera’s momentum was stopped by a bumping incident leaving the turn into the homestretch, but he recovered to finish second behind front-running victor Irish War Cry in the $350,000 Lambholm South Holy Bull (G2) at Gulfstream Feb. 4. There was no stopping Gunnevera in the $400,000 Xpressbet.com Fountain of Youth (G2) March 4, when he rallied from 10th to win going away by 5 ¾ lengths.
“The horse started out strong and with the longer the distances, he has become stronger and stronger,” said Sano, who expressed confidence that Gunnevera will be suited to the 1 1/8-mile distance of the Florida Derby.
Javier Castellano has the return mount aboard Gunnevera, who drew the No. 11 post at Wednesday’s post position draw.
Trainer Todd Pletcher entered both Always Dreaming and Battalion Runner in a quest for his fourth Florida Derby success, although Battalion Runner was entered as a back-up and is not expected to run. Battalion Runner is rated second in the morning line at 3-1, while Always Dreaming is third at 4-1.
Always Dreaming, owned by MeB Racing, Viola Racing, St. Elias Stables and Brooklyn Boyz Stables, finished in the money in his first two starts last year before breaking his maiden by 11 ½ at Tampa Bay Downs in his first race around two turns in January. The son of Bodemeister came back March 4 to capture a 1 1/8-mile allowance at Gulfstream.
“He’s a horse that’s just steadily improved throughout the winter and early spring,” said Pletcher, who has won the Florida Derby with Materiality (2015), Constitution (2014) and Scat Daddy (2007). “We’ve kind of taken somewhat of a conservative approach to it so far with going to Tampa for a two-turn maiden and then coming back in the allowance race.”
St. Elias Stables’ Battalion Runner has just three races in experience. After finishing second in a 5 ½-furlong maiden race at Belmont in June, the son of Unbridled’s Song returned from a six-month layoff to win a seven-furlong maiden race by 5 ¾ lengths at Gulfstream Park Dec. 31. He returned to score a 1 ½-length victory in his first race around two turns in a Feb. 3 allowance at Gulfstream.
Pletcher named Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez on both colts.
Three Rules, who finished third behind Gunnevera in the Fountain of Youth, was entered in the Florida Derby in search of his sixth career triumph over the Gulfstream Park racing surface. The Jose Pinchin-trained colt swept the Florida Sire Stakes series last summer after capturing the Birdonthewire at Gulfstream.
After experiencing defeat for the first time while finishing sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), the son of Going Astray finished a close second to Favorable Outcome in the seven-furlong Swale (G2) Feb. 4. He returned to set the pace in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth before finishing third, just a half-length behind trainer Chad Brown’s multiple Grade 1 stakes winner Practical Joke.
“Looking back on it, it was a hell of a good performance. He got pressured from the go by Irish War Cry, and the Chad Brown horse took him on real early and didn’t really give him a chance, but he ran real good. I thought it was a very good race,” Pinchin said. “The Derby’s here and we’ve got to run. He came out real good. He hasn’t left a grain of feed and he’s doing good.”
Pinchin named Luis Saez to ride Shade Tree Thoroughbreds, Tom Fitzgerald and Geoff Roy’s homebred colt, who was rated at 8-1 after drawing Post 10.
Dale Romans-trained Impressive Edge is also slated to step up to Grade 1 company Saturday after winning an allowance race at Gulfstream last time out. The son of 2002 Florida Derby winner Harlan’s Holiday rated off the pace in the seven-furlong race on March 5 before drawing off to win by eight lengths.
“Anyone who wins an allowance race by eight lengths is a good horse, because you know you’re in with some tough competition,” said Romans, who named Corey Lanerie to return aboard the Kentucky-bred colt. “He did it so easy. He came back like he never did anything. He’s a true athlete.”
Conrad Farms’ State of Honor, who set the pace before finishing second behind heavily favored Tapwrit in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2); Hardway Stables’ Talk Logistics, who has finished fourth in the both the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth; and Olympia Star’s Charlie the Greek and D P Racing’s Unbridled Holiday, who finished second and third, respectively, behind Always Dreaming in the March 4 allowance; are also slated to seek their first stakes victory Saturday.
Rontos Racing Stable Corp.’s Quinientos, who finished sixth in the Fountain of Youth, and Grupo 7C Racing Stable’s Coleman Rocky, a third-place finisher in a recent allowance, round out the field.