The Florida Derby on Saturday should be nothing more than another showcase for the incredible talents of Fly So Free, if you listen to his trainer, Scotty Schulhofer.
"He's as good a horse as I've ever trained," Schulhofer said over the phone last night from Hallandale, Fla. Schulhofer has trained plenty of good horses, champions like Ta Wee, MacDiarmida and Smile as well as a total of 51 stakes winners, so he places Fly So Free in select company.
If Fly So Free wins the Florida Derby as expected, he will have only one more start, the April 13 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, before his run in the Kentucky Derby May 4.
Saturday's race is an important effort in the horse's progression in a so-far flawless campaign leading to Churchill Downs.
Gulfstream Park is touting the Florida Derby as a match race between Fly So Free, with his noble, Kentucky Derby-sounding kind of name, and Jackie Wackie, which could be the name of a trotter in the last race at Rosecroft. Except Jackie Wackie, an obscurely bred gelding, has finished first in all nine of his career starts.
"But I can't get too excited about Jackie Wackie," Schulhofer said. "He looks like he does what he has to do to win. But what has he done? Beat Onward [a Wayne Lukas second-stringer] and then he beat Gizmo's Fortune in the Tropical Park Derby. Frank Gomez, who trains Gizmo's Fortune, is a close friend of mine and he told me that he does not consider his colt a good horse. So Jackie Wackie beat him a half length. That's why I'm not too worried about Jackie Wackie.
"Of course, I have been known to be wrong. But, really, I'm very confident, especially the way Fly So Free is coming up to this race . . . If nothing happens, he's going to peak for the Kentucky Derby."
Fly So Free, who blew out a half mile in 47 seconds yesterday morning, is listed as the 4-5 favorite by Gulfstream Park oddsmakers in the prospective seven-horse lineup. Jackie Wackie is at 5-2. Hansel, who beat Fly So Free nearly a year ago in the Tremont Stakes as a 2-year-old, is the third choice at 6-1. He is getting Lasix for the first time after putting in a disappointing showing in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, beaten 11 lengths by Fly So Free.
If Fly So Free wins the Florida Derby, he will be the first 3-year-old since Spectacular Bid in 1979 to sweep the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes, the 1-1/16 mile Fountain of Youth Stakes and the nine-furlong Florida Derby -- a series of Florida Triple Crown preps.
Baltimore-born trainer Sonny Hine, who winters in Florida with his large string of horses, agrees with Schulhofer that Fly So Free is special.
"This is a top-class racehorse," Hine said. "He certainly is the best there is in the East. I hear there are a lot of nice 3-year-olds on the West Coast, but I'd like to see what they do when they come here. The only horse to come close to Fly So Free around here is Cahill Road, the brother to Unbridled. He's trained by Scotty [Schulhofer], too."
Fly So Free is a Kentucky-bred son of Time For A Change, a son of Damascus. He was purchased on behalf of his current owner, music publisher Tommy Valando, at the Keeneland July Summer Yearling Sale for $80,000 by Mike Ryan, an Irish agent who operates Top Yield Bloodstock in Lexington and is one of the country's foremost bloodstock agents. In 1989, the year he bought Fly So Free, Ryan purchased 97 yearlings for various clients for $12 million. Only the Maktoum brothers and Wayne Lukas spent more money for auction yearlings.
Fly So Free was so quick to get to the races that he won his first start at Belmont Park last May in one of the earliest 2-year-old races.
"I then shipped him to Monmouth Park and the trip seemed to shake him up," Schulhofer said. "He finished third in the race, but then came back to win his next start at Belmont."
Fly So Free subsequently grabbed a quarter (a section of hoof) at the start of the Tremont Stakes and finished fourth. "He also jammed up his shoulder in that race," Schulhofer said.
Schulhofer gave the colt plenty of time to recuperate and he ended up his juvenile career winning the Champagne Stakes and Breeders' Cup Juvenile. There was nearly a three-month span between his Tremont effort and his winning comeback in the Champagne.
Since then the colt has a perfect 3-year-old record. His races have been spaced out and he has been able to give a top effort each time. That means Schulhofer should get to the Kentucky Derby with a well-seasoned, but still relatively fresh, racehorse.
If the horse is successful, Schulhofer's handling of Fly So Free will become a textbook example of how to take a young horse from an early stage of his juvenile career to a win in the Kentucky Derby.