Ho-Hum. At the three-quarter mark of Saturday's $500,000 Florida Derby, the race seemed to be unfolding just as the experts had predicted. As the cream of the 3-year-old crop eased to the final turn at Gulfstream Park, Forty Niner, last year's champion 2-year-old colt, was in the lead. He was closely followed by Notebook, one of three Triple Crown contenders that trainer D. Wayne Lukas is polishing this year. Cherokee Colony, the winner of the Flamingo Stakes in January, was three lengths back in third, and Ruhlmann, the California speed king and the betting favorite at 9-5, was a comfortable fourth.
The prerace assumption was that one of these four horses would win this Derby, the first major prep on the long road to Louisville, and promptly be named the early favorite to win the roses on May 7. But midway into the turn a small bay colt started moving up on the outside. Brian's Time, a 32-1 shot who stands just over 15 hands, was making a monster move. In the stands, Wally and Jody Phillips, the parents of John Phillips, the owner of Brian's Time, began to beat up on trainer John Veitch, pounding him on the back and shoulders as they cheered on their colt.
At the top of the stretch, jockey Randy Romero went to the whip and took Brian's Time six wide around the leaders. By midstretch, he had passed Notebook and Cherokee Colony and was eating into Forty Niner's lead. The two raced side by side for a few strides, before Brian's Time surged in front at the wire to win by a neck. Notebook finished third, Cherokee Colony fourth and Ruhlmann eighth. Brian's Time was clocked in a moderate 1:49 4/5 for the mile and an eighth.
Said a battered but beaming Veitch afterward, "He's small and unassuming, but when the money's down, he gives you everything he's got. You have to like a horse like that." Although Veitch didn't put his money down on Brian's Time, owner Phillips, 35, a grandson of renowned horse owner John Galbreath, did. When asked how much he had wagered, Phillips grinned and said, "Enough." Indeed. A $2 investment returned a tidy $67.60.
Even before the horses went to the post, the 37th running of the Florida Derby was noteworthy for its field of wildly optimistic trainers. "This horse has trained as well as any horse I've trained in my life," said Woody Stephens, 74, handler of Forty Niner. Winner of the Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 15, Forty Niner was the winter-book favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
"Everybody's got a shot here," said Johnny Campo, trainer of Cherokee Colony, who's a son of 1981 Kentucky Derby winner Pleasant Colony. "But I'm going to dust them all off."
"Of course, I think I'm going to win," said Ruhlmann's man, Bobby Frankel, who was buoyed by his colt's extra-fast workouts during the week.
One trainer, however, chose restraint over rhetoric. "He has some ability," said Veitch of Brian's Time. "Whether he's competitive enough to run with the very best remains to be seen."
Brian's Time was taken back after the field broke from the gate, and he was ninth at the half-mile mark, 12 lengths behind Forty Niner, the leader. But Romero sat chilly along the backstretch, biding his time. "I just let the horse run his own race," he said later.
"He's a classic one-run horse," said Veitch. "If you use him too early, it takes power away from his kick, which is his main weapon. That's his breeding. His sire, Roberto [the 1972 Epsom Derby winner], produces late-run, European-style horses that aren't flashy by American standards."
Brian's Time doesn't look flashy by anybody's standards. A Darby Dan Farm homebred out of the Graustark mare Kelly's Day, the diminutive colt was named for Gal-breath's great-grandson, Brian Albrecht, another 3-year-old. The four-legged Brian was a late foal, born in mid-May, and Veitch took his time bringing him along. The colt broke his maiden on Nov. 28 at Aqueduct but didn't win again until Jan. 16, when he won an allowance race at Gulfstream. Then he had a bad trip in the Fountain of Youth, finishing fourth. The Florida Derby was only his third career victory and his first in a stakes race. No wonder the bettors overlooked him.
Saturday's surprising result places this year's 3-year-old crop in a different light. Forty Niner can't be disregarded, but there's now doubt that he can go the Kentucky Derby distance of a mile and a quarter. Never one to be caught short, Stephens is preparing three other colts for Churchill Downs, including Cefis, whom he compares with Swale, his 1984 Kentucky Derby winner.
Excuses can be made for Cherokee Colony, a hard-to-handle colt who washed out badly in the paddock and in the post parade at Gulfstream. He will get another chance to prove himself in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 23. "He's a big kid," says Campo. "This horse hasn't really come to himself. He ain't really interested yet."
Notebook showed for the third time that he can't beat Forty Niner. But don't weep for Lukas; he has two Derby contenders—Tejano and Success Express—in California. Also waiting out West is Charlie Whittingham's Lively One. Another contender is the late-blooming Seeking the Gold, who on Saturday won the seven-furlong Swale Stakes at Gulfstream in a speedy 1:21 3/5.
But Saturday afternoon was Brian's time. After the feature race, owner Phillips savored the victory and looked to the future. "He's just a baby, so I figure he's going to get better and better," he said. "He's a very honest performer. He's only 950 pounds, and 900 of that has to be heart."