The $1 million Besilu Stables Florida Derby picked up a surprise
candidate in Merit Man, who figures to pick up the pace for the 62th
running of Gulfstream Park’s marquee race for 3-year-olds.
Trainer Bob Hess said Wednesday morning that the prospect of a short
field prompted him to think about running his crack sprinter in the 1
1/8-mile Kentucky Derby prep. After Merit Man worked seven furlongs in
1:29 Monday morning at Gulfstream, Hess firmed up his colt’s status for
the Florida Derby.
“We waited until we worked him seven-eighths. While one would say
he’s probably going to be better sprinting, he worked brilliantly,
finished real well and galloped out real strong,” Hess said. “I just
think it’s a good time with a small field to take a shot for a lot of
money. I could have run him here this weekend (in Sunday’s $70,000 Lord
Avie) and made 40 grand. In this race, he’s Grade 1-placed and he makes
120 grand, and if he wins, we’re even luckier.”
Merit Man has excelled at sprint distances during his five race
career. After winning his first two races, including the $100,000 Tim
Conway at Santa Anita, Merit Man was nosed out of a victory in the
Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint. The son of With Distinction returned to
his winning ways in the $100,000 Spectacular Bid on New Year’s Day at
Gulfstream before finishing a troubled fourth in the Hutcheson (G2) on
Hess expects Merit Man to set the pace while stretching out around two turns for the first time.
“He’s not a run-off (horse) by any means. He’s a lazy, lazy, lazy
horse. That’s why I’ve had the blinkers on him sprinting. But the
blinkers are coming off him for this race,” said Hess, who reported that
Kent Desormeaux will have the mount. “He’s not going to run off and go
:44. He’ll have a good rhythm with :23, :46 and maybe 1:09, but he’ll do
that easily. Hopefully, he’ll have enough genetics to hold on for the
Hess said he’s had a lot of success while stretching out sprinters in two-turn races for the first time.
“We’ve been very successful. Not with a closing sprinter; closing
sprinters are closing sprinters. But speed sprinters in their first
two-turn start will defy reality often times,” he said. “They get out
there, slow down and keep going.”
Hess has no plans to put Merit Man on the Kentucky Derby trail beyond the Florida Derby.
“This is a one-time deal. Like I mentioned, the first time is a sprinter’s best route,” he said.