BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. -- Two weeks after War Pass inexplicably ran last for his first defeat, trainer Nick Zito has two more Kentucky Derby hopefuls in the $1 million Florida Derby -- Fierce Wind and Da'Tara.
While Zito is optimistic about his 3-year-olds, he believes today's story line at Gulfstream Park centers on lightly raced Big Brown, the 3-1 favorite with 2 breathtaking victories by a combined 24 lengths.
"The favorite is the story because he's so fabulous no matter how you look at it," Zito said outside his stable at the Palm Meadows training center. "Kent Desormeaux, his jockey, has been telling me how great the horse is and he hasn't stopped."
Big Brown trainer Rick Dutrow feels the same way.
"We see what is possible and we see it happening in front of us, and it's so much fun," Dutrow said.
The 57th running of the Florida Derby shapes up as one of the most intriguing Kentucky Derby prep races yet. This one is all about money, as in just about every horse in the field needs to boost his graded-stakes earnings for a chance to qualify for the Derby on May 3 if more than 20 are entered, which seems likely at this point.
Also, the race doesn't have an absolute standout, and Big Brown drew the undesirable outside No. 12 post position. Throw in mystery horse Tomcito, a star in Peru making his U.S. and 3-year-old debut, and the Grade 1, 1-mile race has plenty to offer.
"It's time to see if Tomcito fits with these big-time horses," trainer Dante Zanelli said. "I like Nick's horse (Fierce Wind) and Barclay Tagg's horse (Elysium Fields) is tough. Big Brown still has to prove himself just like we do. This is a race where everyone will start to get answers, not just us."
Fierce Wind has won three in a row, including the ungraded Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. However, he has no graded earnings. Big Brown and Hey Byrn, two of the three favorites, are in the same situation. Of the 12 starters, only Majestic Warrior ranks among the top 25 graded earners, at No. 16 with $164,000.
The winner's share of the Florida Derby is $600,000, with $200,000 for second and $100,000 for third. The Lexington Stakes on April 19 could be a final option for trainers looking to give their horse a last chance of earning enough money.
"This is a big shot for earnings, that's for sure," Zito said.
Big Brown faces a tough test from the No. 12 post. Since Gulfstream was rebuilt four years ago, no horse has won a 1 1-8-mile race over the main track from the No. 11 or No. 12 posts.
Dutrow isn't deterred.
"As long as he breaks good, it eliminates any chance of him getting into trouble," the trainer said.
Meanwhile, Fierce Wind starts from the rail with Cornelio Velasquez aboard.
"Even though you get a good post, you're horse has to be good enough," Zito said. "He needs to take advantage and get himself in position from there."
That was not the case for top Derby contender War Pass in the Tampa Bay Derby on March 15. The front-running War Pass was restless in the gate, got pinched back at the start and never found his rhythm. It was his first defeat after rolling to five victories.
The loss still bothers Zito, who says War Pass put in a "fabulous" workout Thursday at Palm Meadows in preparation for his final Derby prep in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 5.
"I still think he's my best horse," the trainer said. "And I promise you, nobody will be in War Pass' way early. Whether he makes it or not, I don't know what the outcome will be. But I can tell you one thing -- he'll be on the lead."
For now, he's thinking about Fierce Wind and Da'Tara.
"I have a lot of faith in Fierce Wind, and Da'Tara will run a good race," Zito said.