The ascension of Harlan's Holiday from a Kentucky Derby hopeful
to a Kentucky Derby favorite began in earnest last Saturday as
he headed into the final turn of the Florida Derby at Gulfstream
Park. The colt was tooling comfortably along the rail in third
place, two lengths behind archrival Booklet--who had defeated
Harlan's Holiday twice this year on this track--and a speed
burner named Smooth Jazz. Then, at the half-mile pole, Harlan's
Holiday unleashed a surge that surprised even jockey Edgar
Prado, sweeping three-wide around the leaders and into first
place. The stocky bay charged into the stretch ahead by more
than two lengths. "I wasn't even encouraging him," Prado said
afterward. "When he made that move, he was just taking me."
Prado recovered in time to urge Harlan's Holiday home to victory
by 3 1/2 widening lengths.
"Once I saw him collar those horses, there was no doubt in my
mind that we were going to win the race," said Kenny McPeek,
trainer of Harlan's Holiday. "I didn't believe there was a horse
in the race who had the class to catch up to him."
Not bad for an Ohio bred who was one of the first purchases of
Jack and Laurie Wolf, an Atlanta couple who entered the horse
racing business just 18 months ago. With the win Harlan's
Holiday assumed the unofficial mantle of best horse in the East.
He also asserted his supremacy, for now, over Booklet, who
finished fourth, and brought some order to a disjointed Kentucky
Derby prep season. Despite scattered impressive performances
(such as that of Medaglia d'Oro, who upset favored Siphonic in
the San Felipe Stakes on Sunday at Santa Anita), no horse has
looked dominant. Further confusing things has been the uncertain
status of Breeders' Cup Juvenile champion Johannesburg, the
undefeated, Ireland-based colt who hasn't raced since his
triumph in October. Johannesburg's trainer, Aidan O'Brien, has
been coy about committing the colt to the Kentucky Derby and has
said he will run him only once before the May 4 classic, in a
milelong race on dirt at Lingfield Park, in England, on April
6--hardly a traditional schedule.
Perhaps the only sure thing on the 3-year-old scene has been the
crackling rivalry of Harlan's Holiday and Booklet, whose two
previous meetings at Gulfstream turned into virtual match races.
In the 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull on Jan. 19 Booklet set the pace
from the start and held off Harlan's Holiday to win by three
quarters of a length. Much the same thing happened at the same
distance in the Fountain of Youth on Feb. 16, with Booklet's
margin of victory shrinking to the tip of his nose.
This time Harlan's Holiday took advantage of a furious duel
between Booklet and Smooth Jazz. The half-mile split of 45 1/5
set by that duo was the fastest in the 51-year history of the
Florida Derby. The early speed wasn't unexpected; it was widely
assumed that trainer Todd Pletcher had entered Smooth Jazz to
soften up Booklet for Pletcher's other horse, a closer named
Nokoma. The tactic worked perfectly--for Harlan's Holiday.
Nokoma failed to fire and Harlan's Holiday had a clear path,
with only the George Steinbrenner-owned colt Blue Burner
approaching him in the stretch. "My horse wasn't going to beat
the winner going a mile and a quarter, or a mile and a half,"
said Blue Burner's rider, Jerry Bailey.
The Buckeye State hasn't produced a Kentucky Derby winner since
Wintergreen in 1909. After Saturday's race Laurie Wolf teased the
skeptics by recalling a comment published in the Daily Racing
Form last June 9, the day Harlan's Holiday made his racing debut:
"Ninety-seven thousand dollars for an Ohio bred? What were you
thinking?" To which she added, "But we couldn't have been any
See you in Kentucky.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Home, Boy Harlan's Holiday (right) pulled away in the stretch.
"Once I saw him collar those horses, there was no doubt we were
going to win," says McPeek.