An owner who ignored advice at a yearling auction, a trainer who is allergic to horses and a jockey spurned by another trainer were all fantasizing about the Kentucky Derby on Saturday after Bull Inthe Heather won at 29-1 in the $500,000 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.
Able to save ground along the rail after tiring rivals in front of him cleared out, Bull Inthe Heather overtook favored Storm Tower in mid-stretch and pulled away to a two-length victory.
Bull Inthe Heather's performance was no more implausible than some of the others in the races leading to the Kentucky Derby on May 1. Coast to coast, this is a crop of 3-year-olds virtually bereft of horses who have won two important races in a row. On a rain-splattered day at Gulfstream, Storm Tower suffered his first loss in a five-race career after taking the lead on the far turn.
Storm Tower, sent off at 9-5, finished a head in front of Wallenda, who was three-quarters of a length better than Kissin Kris. Completing the order of finish were Silver Of Silver, Halostrada, Duc d'Sligovil, Pride Of Burkaan, Living Vicariously, Hidden Trick, Great Navigator, Gentle Patrick and Ambush Alley.
Before Saturday, Bull Inthe Heather's only victory in six starts was against maidens at Aqueduct in December, and he was 17-1 that day, having been beaten by 30 cumulative lengths in his first three starts.
Trainer Howie Tesher entered him in a grass race at Gulfstream in February. "He had worked terrifically on grass," said Tesher, a 57-year-old journalism graduate from the University of Florida. "I figured that if he didn't work out on dirt, he might be all right as a grass horse."
The minor grass stake was switched to dirt because the turf course was wet, and Bull Inthe Heather finished sixth, running seven lengths behind the winner, Kissin Kris. Then three weeks ago, in the division of the Fountain of Youth Stakes that was won by Duc d'Sligovil, Bull Inthe Heather went on Lasix for the first time and was ridden for the first time by Wigberto Ramos. He finished second, 2 1/4 lengths back.
According to Tesher, Ramos had hoped to ride Great Navigator in the Florida Derby, but that mount went to Herb Castillo. Ramos, a 22-year-old Panamanian who ranks eighth in the Gulfstream jockey standings, returned to Bull Inthe Heather because Tesher had no luck finding many riders that were interested.
"It was a hard sell with this horse," Tesher said. "But I told Wigberto that I had great confidence in this horse because of how much he had improved since we came to Florida. Wigberto fits the horse, because he needs a strong rider."
Bull Inthe Heather, after racing close to the pace in his last three races, dropped back to eighth place after a half-mile Saturday. He began moving up on the turn and at the top of the stretch was able to draw a bead on the leaders when Julie Krone, astride Duc d'Sligovil, moved her horse to the outside.
Ramos angled Bull Inthe Heather along the rail between the fading Great Navigator and Storm Tower at the eighth pole, and after his horse made the lead, he went to the whip only three times in the last sixteenth of a mile.
Bull Inthe Heather completed 1 1/8 miles on a sloppy track in a very slow 1:51 1/5 and paid $60.80 to win before a crowd of about 24,000.
"This horse stands more than 17 hands (68 inches), and he reminds me of Lenny in 'Of Mice and Men,' " Tesher said. "That is, you can't beat up on him too much or he'll give you trouble. He's like no other horse I've trained. He loves to train, and he loves to race."
From the first crop by Ferdinand, the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner, Bull Inthe Heather is out of Heather Road, a The Axe II mare. Consigned to a Saratoga sale by co-breeders John Franks and Claiborne Farm, Bull inthe Heather was bought for $130,000 by Arthur Klein, a New York electrical contractor, after an adviser told him not to go over $70,000. "He looked like a winner," Klein said. "And he looked me right in the eye when we were examining him before the sale."