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Florida Derby Is on Bacteria Alert

Times Staff Writer

Although trainer Nick Zito is running the top two morning-line choices for the Florida Derby, no one is suggesting that he has a stranglehold on Saturday’s $1-million race.

Stranglehold: These days that’s a poor word choice -- and a bad pun, probably -- in South Florida, where Gulfstream Park, host of the Florida Derby, and its nearby training facility, Palm Meadows, are on an alert for “strangles,” a contagious bacterial disease that is marked by nasal inflammation and mouth abscesses and that has tracks in Kentucky and New York equally concerned.

With the Kentucky Derby approaching, on May 7, Churchill Downs has restricted the arrival of horses from Florida. In mid-March, 19 cases of strangles were reported at Churchill’s off-track training facility in Louisville, although that number had dropped to five by this week.

The effect of strangles here hasn’t directly affected the Florida Derby -- the dropouts, expected second choice Bandini, and Closing Argument, have bruised feet -- but the disease has been responsible for some unusual training adjustments.

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Zito’s estimable pair, High Fly and Noble Causeway, were not allowed on the track at Gulfstream on Monday until after training hours for the rest of the horses. High Fly and Noble Causeway have wintered at Palm Meadows, but Zito wanted to familiarize them with the track over which they’ll run Saturday. Cautious Gulfstream officials, mindful that there had been five recent positives for strangles at the training center, asked Zito to keep his horses in the barn until about 10 a.m.

“Nothing like having an entire racetrack to ourselves,” Zito said as he led High Fly, the Fountain of Youth Stakes winner, out of the barn. High Fly, working Tuesday in company with another Zito horse, posted a time of 48 2/5 seconds for half a mile. The colt was making up for a Saturday workout that was postponed because he had run a fever the day before.

“The high temperature was just a one-day thing, and we’re in good shape now,” said Zito, who has won the Kentucky Derby twice but is winless with 16 starters in the Florida Derby.

Had Bandini and Closing Argument run, there might have been only four other horses running in the 1 1/8 -mile Florida Derby. But instead nine horses were entered.

“Those were significant defections,” said Rick Violette, who’ll run Wallstreet Scandal, a well-beaten fourth in the Louisiana Derby. “And High Fly, after that fever, might not be at his best.”

This is the field, in post-position order, with jockeys and odds: Noble Causeway, Edgar Prado, 3-1; B.B. Best, Jorge Chavez, 8-1; Park Avenue Ball, Ramon Dominguez, 15-1; High Fly, Jerry Bailey, 8-5; Vicarage, John Velazquez, 6-1; Mighty Mecke, Cornelio Velasquez, 10-1; Papi Chullo, Robby Albarado, 8-1; Wallstreet Scandal, Javier Castellano, 12-1; and Evil Minister, Clinton Potts, 20-1.

Even though the Gulfstream meet doesn’t end until April 24, several prominent Palm Meadows trainers shipped their horses to Kentucky before Churchill Downs and Keeneland, in Lexington, toughened their import policy. Bobby Frankel moved 14 horses to Churchill last weekend; between them, Todd Pletcher and Kiaran McLaughlin sent 49 horses to Keeneland. On Saturday, Zito shipped Sun King, who is considered his best Kentucky Derby contender, and Bellamy Road, another promising 3-year-old, to Churchill.

“I didn’t want to take a chance that these horses would get stuck in Florida,” said Frankel, whose shipment included Ghostzapper, the horse of the year in 2004.

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At Santa Anita on Wednesday, Rick Hammerle, the racing secretary, said that the track hadn’t formulated a policy on strangles. There have been no reported cases of the disease in California, but Frankel has a California division and there are other California-based trainers who have run horses this winter at Gulfstream. Papi Chullo, who’s still a maiden, started the year at Hollywood Park.

“We’re still investigating,” Hammerle said. “Our vets have been discussing the options. We’ll have something more specific in a day or two.”


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