About a week ago, trainers Charlie Whittingham and Wayne Lukas were at Santa Anita, talking about the Kentucky Derby.
For years, Whittingham didn't pay much attention to the Derby, bringing his horses along slowly, but in the 1980s he rediscovered the race, and after that he couldn't get enough of Churchill Downs. Whittingham saddled the winning Ferdinand in 1986, then returned three years later and won with Sunday Silence.
Lukas has won only one Derby, with the filly Winning Colors in 1988, but he has run at least one horse in the race since 1981 and has had 19 starters overall.
"You know what it takes to win the Derby, more than anything else?" Whittingham said at Santa Anita. "A horse who doesn't get bothered by anything. A horse who can handle that big crowd and all the goings-on in Kentucky."
That put Lukas in mind of one of his horses.
"We sent Dance Floor to Florida, and he never turned a hair for that Gulfstream (Park) race," Lukas said. "Nothing bothers him, that's for sure."
"Who's he by?" Whittingham said.
"Star De Naskra," Lukas said.
"Little horses," Whittingham said, categorizing Star De Naskra's progeny.
"Not this one," Lukas said. "He's well over 16 hands (four inches to the hand)."
Many of Lukas' horses wind up well traveled, because the nation's leading trainer for the last nine years will run anywhere the opportunity arises. But even by that standard, Dance Floor has been especially mobile for a young horse.
He will take on 11 rivals as the expected favorite in the $500,000 Florida Derby at Gulfstream, the same track where he was a 4 1/2-length winner in the Fountain of Youth Stakes three weeks ago.
Dance Floor's racing career is only 7 1/2 months old and already he has run nine times at six tracks, with four victories, three seconds and earnings of $523,859.
Dance Floor has been to New Jersey, Kentucky, California and now Florida. As a 2-year-old, he ran two of his strongest races last fall in Kentucky, winning the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland and the Brown & Williamson Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs. But in between, in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill, he ran his worst race, finishing sixth, 13 1/2 lengths behind Arazi.
The Breeders' Cup race had a 14-horse field and Dance Floor drew the No. 12 post. No one was going to beat Arazi, but Dance Floor might have been closer at the end if he and Pat Day hadn't run into a traffic jam on the turn for home. Chris Antley, who has won twice in three tries with Dance Floor, including the Fountain of Youth, is aboard again in the Florida Derby.
Dance Floor has another unfavorable post today, breaking from No. 11. There have been nearly 300 races around two turns with large fields at Gulfstream this season, and only 4% have been won by horses breaking from posts 9 through 12.
Pistols And Roses, who has never run outside of Florida, is expected to be the second choice in the betting today. He was unable to overcome a No. 10 post in the 11-horse Fountain of Youth, finishing third and then being moved up to second by the stewards after the disqualification of Careful Gesture. Pistols And Roses will have the No. 5 post in the Florida Derby.
Careful Gesture also is entered, along with My Luck Runs North, Catire Bello, Scream Machine, Technology, Tiger Tiger, After The Beep, Black Question, Tank's Number and Waki Warrior.
There was intermittent rain here Friday, but the temperature is supposed to be in the 70s and a fast track is expected.
A New Jersey-bred, Dance Floor was sold to Lukas for $90,000 at a yearling auction in Kentucky. Before he ran, rapper Hammer and his family, who race several horses with Lukas, bought Dance Floor and two other horses in a package deal for a reported $430,000.
After his Kentucky campaign, Dance Floor was brought to California in December for the Hollywood Futurity. He finished second, losing by a neck to A.P. Indy. The race was not that close, however, because Eddie Delahoussaye, A.P. Indy's jockey, never struck his mount with the whip.
The Hammer group had an auspicious introduction to racing last year when Lite Light, a filly that cost an estimated $1 million, won four stakes before being forced to the sidelines because of a bleeding problem. Lite Light, back in training now, finished second, behind Dance Smartly, in the voting for best 3-year-old filly for 1991.
Chris Burrell, Hammer's older brother, is managing the family's racing interests.
"It was my decision to keep Dance Floor away from A.P. Indy and go the Florida route," Burrell said. "We'll meet the heavy hitters in Kentucky. But now we have an obstacle here--the size of the field. My concern is that some of the horses who perhaps shouldn't be in there can cause some problems as the race unfolds. I couldn't believe it when I heard how many horses were running in this race."
This is the biggest Florida Derby field since Southland-based Snow Chief beat 15 opponents in 1986.
A victory today would send Dance Floor on to the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 11.