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Features - RACING

East Hall breaking his maiden at Gulfstream Park last year (photos by Bob Coglinese Photos).

By Tom Pedulla, America’s Best Racing

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Trainer Bill Kaplan did not think the timing of the $1 million Florida Derby would be right for East Hall after the colt injured his left ankle during a rough trip in the Tampa Bay Derby. He is delighted to be wrong.

“If he wasn’t perfect, we wouldn’t be running in this race,” said Kaplan after East Hall drew post five in a field of eight for the Florida Derby on Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

Kaplan, 68, knows how rare it is for everything to line up just right in advance of a major race. But he is convinced that is the case here, prompting him to scrap his initial plan of waiting for the Blue Grass Stakes, to be run on April 12 on Polytrack at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky.

“We really weren’t planning on going here but he healed so quickly that we were able to work him Monday and he worked brilliantly,” Kaplan said.

Although East Hall is listed as a 20-1 longshot in the morning line, the argument can be made that the former $55,000 purchase belongs with this group if he produces his best effort to date. Gulfstream Park serves as his home base; the Florida-bred Graeme Hall son earned both of his career victories over the track as a 2-year-old.

He made an auspicious debut at three for owners H. Jack Hendricks and Roger Justice of Lexington, Ky., by taking third in the Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year’s Day. He made a belated charge to be fourth in the Fountain of Youth Stakes before his troubled eighth-place showing in the Tampa Bay Derby.

Given the abundant speed in the field, jockey Juan Leyva should be able to work out a good trip from post five and make the most of East Hall’s powerful late kick. Wildcat Red, who showed a high turn of foot in taking the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream, is likely to set strong fractions after he and jockey John Velazquez drew the rail. General a Rod, who pressed Wildcat Red throughout the Fountain of Youth in a valiant runner-up finish, should be in hot pursuit from post six with Joel Rosario in the irons.

“It doesn’t really matter much to him because he’ll be a bit off the pace,” Kaplan said. “He has tremendous endurance. He is a great finishing horse.”

EAST HALL AFTER AN ALLOWANCE VICTORY LAST NOVEMBER

East Hall Inside

At the moment, East Hall has accumulated only five points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. That could change quickly. A top three finish in the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby would surely be enough for him to be included in the 20-horse field on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.

BE THERE: See Wynonna Judd & The Big Noise LIVE at the 1st Annual Fillies and Lilies Party at the Kentucky Derby Museum on Oaks Night.

“I’ll sign up for third and I’ll wait for the mile and a quarter,” Kaplan said. The mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes also is very prominent in his thinking. He is convinced his horse will relish distance.

While Kaplan may lack the high profile of some of his fellow trainers, he is well respected on the Florida circuit and beyond for his ability to spot inexpensive 2-year-olds and have them far exceed expectations. He saddled Musical Romance, a beautifully named $22,000 bargain, to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) in 2011. Imawildandcrazyguy, a cleverly named $29,000 purchase, ran fourth in the 2007 Kentucky Derby.

Kaplan’s most impressive credentials, though, have nothing to do with racing. He rose to the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Army and served in Vietnam, earning a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

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