Late Saturday afternoon will be a time of heightened sensations and swirling emotions for several people with strong Louisville connections.
The scene will be South Floridaâ€™s Gulfstream Park and the event at the center of that emotional activity will be the $1 million Besilu Stables Florida Derby, long an important prep for Thoroughbred racingâ€™s biggest event â€“ the $2 million Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands at Churchill Downs.
There are a couple of reasons to suspect that this yearâ€™s race is even bigger than usual.
One is that the Florida Derby is one of the first races in leg two of the Championship Series of the Road to the Kentucky Derby. The latter is the first-year points system that will determine the eligibility of horses to be a member of the maximum field of 20 horses for the Kentucky Derby. Leg two of the Championship Series consists of nine races, seven of which offer 100 points to the winner.
The 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby is one of the first of the big-point Championship Series events.
Secondly, the race provides an opportunity for a talented colt named Shanghai Bobby to prove that he has the mettle to be considered among the handful of top contenders for the big race at Churchill Downs.
Thatâ€™s where the Louisville group comes in. One of the coltâ€™s owners, Starlight Racing, is flush with Louisville ties. Managing partner Jack Wolf is a native of the city, and his partners in Shanghai Bobby include Louisville attorney Ed Glasscock and his son, Clinton. The elder Glasscock has long been one of Louisvilleâ€™s most influential business and civic leaders. They are partners with the international racing powerhouse Coolmore, which bought a piece of colt last fall.
Shanghai Bobby was the unbeaten champion 2-year-old of 2012 for trainer Todd Pletcher and capped that season with a victory in the Grey Goose Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile. But critics of the colt suspect that the son of Harlanâ€™s Holiday, the beaten Kentucky Derby favorite in 2002, does not have the right stuff for the Kentucky Derbyâ€™s mile and a quarter.
They point to his Breedersâ€™ Cup race, in which he appeared ready to fold in the stretch of the 1 1/16-mile contest before fighting back to hold off Heâ€™s Had Enough in the final yards. The latter has accomplished little as a 3-year-old, and the notion that Shanghai Bobby might have faced a weak group in the Breedersâ€™ Cup has only fueled the coltâ€™s detractors.
But his supporters note that Shanghai Bobby has been distracted in the homestretch through his career and his Breedersâ€™ Cup win is notable because he bore down when he saw Heâ€™s Had Enough coming and was never threatened from that point.
Shanghai Bobby has had one race since the Breedersâ€™ Cup and it was a good one, although it ended with his only defeat in six career starts. He ran a strong second Gulfstreamâ€™s Holy Bull to Itsmyluckyday, a rival he will meet again on Saturday. Itsmyluckyday emerged as a star in his two winter races over the dirt at Gulfstream and is either: a) on the short list of major hopes for Kentucky Derby 139, or, b) a horse that seriously loves that course.
The Holy Bull was a very fast race at 1 1/16 miles and a two-horse affair. Itsmyluckyday won by two lengths and it the third-place runner came home 11 Â½ lengths behind Shanghai Bobby.
But despite his strong run in his lone defeat, these facts remain: the 2013 Kentucky Derby is six weeks away, Shanghai Bobby lost his only race in four months and he has yet to prove he can handle 1 1/8 miles, a course that is a furlong shy of what he would see in Louisville.
For his supporters, the Florida Derby is a wonderful opportunity for Shanghai Bobby. A win would provide evidence that the Kentucky Derbyâ€™s 10 furlongs is not out of his grasp and a 1-2 finish would provide the champion with enough points to guarantee a spot in one of the 20 slots in the Churchill Downs starting gate on Kentucky Derby Day.
But a loss, and especially a finish of third or worse, would serve to validate the lingering distance questions and put the champion in a precarious spot in terms of having enough points to qualify in the inaugural year of the Kentucky Derby points system.
The Starlight Racing team has campaigned some marvelous horses, but there is only one Kentucky Derby. Much is at stake for Shanghai Bobby in his first race at 1 1/8 miles and much drama will play out on Saturday in the neighborhood of a minute and 49 seconds.
In a national conference call on Tuesday, Wolf was asked about those stamina concerns.
â€œCan I answer that question after Saturday?â€ he responded. â€œIf, after this race, it looks like distance is a factor, there are a lot of races at seven furlongs and eight furlongs.â€
But it is the 10-furlong event on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs that remains the primary concern for Wolf and the Glasscocks.
They know they have a good horse â€“ a proven champion. But thereâ€™s no feeling quite like having a good horse representing you at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May and, until Saturday, that prospect remains in question.
Shanghai Bobby remains atop my personal Top 10 in the Kentucky Derby Power Rankings at www.KentuckyDerby.com. The local connections are all friends and Ed Glasscock and I trace our pedigrees to Grayson Count. He grew up in Leitchfield and my childhood was spent a few miles away in the small community of St. Paul.
The Starlight colt tops my list not out of friendship, but because of a belief that his loss in the Holy Bull was a better effort than his race in the Breedersâ€™ Cup. A step forward from his lone run in 2013 should result in a strong Florida Derby result and strong reason for a trip to Kentucky.
The Asher Top 10, as of March 26:
- Shanghai Bobby
- Will Take Charge
- Normandy Invasion