HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - When the hole along the rail opened at the top of the stretch, Javier Castellano shot through it on Constitution. The battle was on with gutty front-runner Wildcat Red, and the 3-year-old colts dueled to the wire. The way the day and the Gulfstream Park meeting had gone, it was no surprise that Castellano got there first for trainer Todd Pletcher.
Constitution edged away Saturday in the final yards of the $1-million Florida Derby, beating Wildcat Red by a neck. The son of hot young sire Tapit will head to Churchill Downs 3-for-3, all this year. He'll try to become the fourth horse in eight years to hit the Florida Derby-Kentucky Derby double, joining Barbaro (2006), Big Brown (2008) and Orb (last year).
"It was fortunate," Castellano said of his fifth winner on the card, and Pletcher's fourth. "I didn't want to go wide and lose ground, so I took advantage and squeezed up along the rail. I took my shot and it worked out great."
Coming up empty was 6-5 favorite Cairo Prince, who had to go four wide into the stretch and never contended. He came in fourth, 3 3/4 lengths behind Constitution and 2 1/4 lengths in back of General a Rod, named for owner J. Armando Rodriguez, not the suspended Yankees slugger.
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin was disappointed but said he still planned to take Cairo Prince to Louisville. "Fourth should give us enough points to get into the Derby, so we're going to go," he said. "He was moving, and then he just flattened out. It's hard to say what happened, but I still believe in the horse. Hats off to the first two, they both ran great."
Wildcat Red set moderate fractions (24.01 seconds for a quarter-mile, 48.19 for a half) under John Velazquez while pressured three-wide by General a Rod and Joel Rosario, with Constitution never farther back than fourth. Cairo Prince, ridden by Luis Saez, made a bid around the far turn but soon faded. It was a two-horse fight through the stretch, and Constitution completed 1 1/8 miles in sultry, overcast conditions in 1:49.16. He paid $8.60.
Gulfstream has been Pletcher's winter playground for a long time, and he's already locked up his 11th training title. It's become Castellano's happy place, too. He's led the standings the past three years, with more than 100 wins each time.
Pletcher said he was hoping Constitution would get the stalking trip General a Rod worked out. "It didn't unfold exactly as we had planned," he said. "Javier called an audible and tucked into a good spot. I think he rode a very smart race. We knew the horse had the talent, but I was a little concerned today when I saw him taking dirt in the face."
Constitution earned $600,000 for WinStar Farm and Twin Creeks Racing Stable, raising his bankroll to $649,350. Pletcher's only Derby victory came for WinStar in 2010 with Super Saver. Castellano, 36, has never won racing's most coveted trophy.
"I'm very, very proud of Constitution," Pletcher said. "It's a testament to the quality of horse he is, to go from a maiden to an allowance to a Grade I, and put in a huge effort against much more-seasoned horses."
Notes & quotes: Pletcher and Castellano also teamed to take the Grade II, 1 1/8-mile Gulfstream Oaks with the filly In Tune, a leading Kentucky Oaks prospect also unbeaten in three starts . . . In another Pletcher-Castellano collaboration, owner Mike Repole's 4-year-old colt Micromanage ($10.40) broke a seven-race slump by dominating the Grade III Skip Away Stakes by 4 1/4 lengths.