Materiality's Florida Derby win gives Todd Pletcher another Kentucky Derby starter. (Photos by Eclipse Sportswire)
By Tom Pedulla
HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Trainer Todd Pletcher finds himself in an eerily similar position to the one he was in after last year’s Florida Derby. And that ain’t a bad thing.
Pletcher won his second consecutive Florida Derby on Saturday and a record-tying third overall when Materiality withstood enormous pressure from Upstart in gutting out a length-and-a-half victory to earn a place in the Kentucky Derby on May 2.
The thrilling outcome immediately called to mind Constitution, another later-developing colt who turned last year’s Florida Derby into his third victory in as many starts for Pletcher just the way Materiality did.
“There are similarities,” Pletcher said. “Both are lightly-raced horses who were able to win the Florida Derby early in their career.”
The trainer hopes the similarities end there. Constitution never made it to the Kentucky Derby or any of the Triple Crown races due to an injury that sidelined him until October. Fans can only hope Materiality stays sound and can replicate his eye-opening performance at Churchill Downs.
Upstart, the Holy Bull winner and the Fountain of Youth victor before stewards disqualified him and placed him second for interference during the stretch run in a controversial decision, is a tough-as-nails competitor. Materiality proved to be tougher.
Many owners and trainers will go to the Kentucky Derby wondering how their horse will respond if he finds himself in a down-the-stretch gunfight. Materiality, the son of another gutsy horse, Afleet Alex, already answered that question.
MATERALITY AFTER WINNING THE FLORIDA DERBY
John Velazquez, who rode Materiality, said of his scorching duel with Upstart in the 1 1/8-mile prep race, “We hooked up at the half-mile pole all the way to the wire. That’s a lot of running.”
It is an awful lot of running for a horse with a little more than three weeks between starts. And it was yet another testament to the winner.
Pletcher has suspected Materiality could be a keen Kentucky Derby contender for some time now. He was, after all, a $400,000 purchase for Alto Racing last year as a 2-year-old. He has the physique and stride of a horse made for the spring classics.
ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY LEADERBOARD
According to Pletcher, assorted minor problems kept the youngster from racing as a 2-year-old. When he finally debuted on Jan. 11 at Gulfstream Park, it was worth the wait. He rolled to a 4 ½-length victory. The next start was more impressive still. He sat comfortably off the leader in the early going in the Islamorada Stakes before Velazquez asked him to run -- and he responded with a 5 ¾-length romp.
At that point, Pletcher became quietly confident that the Florida Derby was within reach for Materiality in his first test against graded stakes company. “You don’t see it happen very often, but you don’t see horses win their second start off of one six-furlong maiden win and go a mile-and-an-eighth in exceptional time,” he said. “So I think he stamped himself as a very legitimate horse at that point. But it takes a special one to do that.”
It also is going to take a special horse to win the Derby after going unraced at 2. Apollo was the last to accomplish that, in 1882. The greatest hope is that Materiality will go on to the Kentucky Derby in peak form to give it a go.