Florida Derby: Mage connections have hope in tough field

Florida Derby: Mage connections have hope in tough field
Photo: Liz Lamont / Eclipse Sportswire

Hallandale Beach, Fla.

It remains to be seen how the Grade 1 Florida Derby will unfold on Saturday at Gulfstream Park, but Mage’s connections admit it already is not the race they were anticipating.

They knew 2-year-old champion Forte would be the one to beat after the way he manhandled eight rivals in the Feb. 4 Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream. They thought his imposing closing kick might limit the competition to a handful of other horses and leave them as a primary source of speed.

They, and many other owners and trainers, thought wrong.

When post positions were drawn last Saturday, 12 horses jumped into the 1 1/8-mile fray. If all of them start, it will be the largest Florida Derby field since Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown defeated 11 foes in 2008.

“I never think the Florida Derby would have a big field. A lot of traffic,” said Gustavo Delgado, Mage’s trainer. His son, Gustavo Delgado Jr., said they expected half of the actual field size when they took the leap into the Florida Derby with a promising colt who has made only two lifetime starts.

Mage is owned by Delgado Jr.’s OGMA Investments, Ramiro Restrepo, Sam Herzberg’s Sterling Racing and CMNWLTH, which sells microshares in horses. He gained attention with an auspicious debut Jan. 28 at Gulfstream, when he rolled through seven furlongs in 1:22.54 and prevailed by 3 3/4 lengths in a front-running effort. He showed talent and inexperience in finishing fourth in the March 4 Fountain of Youth at 1 1/16 miles.

Mage’s chances were immediately compromised when he struck the side of the starting gate and broke last. He lost considerable ground around both turns and did well to salvage fourth among nine runners for jockey Javier Castellano.

Even with that encouraging effort, Restrepo said there was nothing automatic about remaining in South Florida for the last Kentucky Derby prep at Gulfstream. Other options ranged from an allowance race to the April 8 Blue Grass Stakes (G1) at Keeneland to abandoning the Kentucky Derby bid to run in the Pat Day Mile (G2) at Churchill Downs as part of the Derby undercard.

Delgado said there was one overriding factor when he chose to remain at his home base for the Florida Derby. “We go to the paddock in five minutes,” he said.

The trainer is doing everything he can to play catch-up with the Good Magic colt who went unraced at 2. He twice sent Mage to the starting gate for schooling since the Fountain of Youth. He also worked him twice, at five and six furlongs. Mage completed the latter in 1:16.6 last Friday at Gulfstream Park, the only horse to drill at that distance.

“We need the stamina. We’re sure he has the speed,” said Delgado, adding that he expects to be part of the first flight of runners in a race with considerable early speed.

Delgado Jr., who assists his father, is confident the gate concerns will be a thing of the past. “We just hope we get a better break and, with the things we’ve done, we’re expecting that,” he said.

According to Restrepo, Mage is giving every indication that he is ready to take another step forward. “The horse is feeling well, he’s training well, he’s eating more than ever. He’s gaining weight,” the owner said. “He’s shown all the exterior signs that he’s ready to compete.”

Yet another positive factor is that Luis Saez is taking the mount for the first time. He and Mage will break from post 4 and are listed at 10-1 on the morning line. The top three choices all drew far outside, with Fort Bragg, at 5-1, in post 10; Forte, 4-5, in post 11; and Dubyuhnell, 6-1, in post 12. That's a huge disadvantage at Gulfstream.

Mage has 10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points. He will need a strong showing in the Florida Derby to advance to the first Saturday in May. The Florida Derby offers points to the top five finishers on a 100-40-30-20-10 scale.

Restrepo hopes to feel like a winner even if Mage does not upset Forte. “You finish top four in a Grade 1 worth $1 million, how could we not be doing cartwheels?” he said. “And if you win, you’ll have one of those Jim Valvano moments, running around for who to hug and who to kiss.”

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