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Purple Egg faces seven in Gulfstream Derby; Merit Man heads Spectacular Bid

Purple Egg has recorded two consecutive bullet workouts since his good-looking win in the Inaugural  (Tom Cooley Photography)

The road to the $1 million Florida Derby on March 30 kicks off at Gulfstream Park when three-year-olds square off in the $100,000 Gulfstream Park Derby and $100,000 Spectacular Bid on New Year's Day Tuesday.

Purple Egg, a smart one-length winner of the December 1 Inaugural at Tampa Bay Downs in his stakes debut, will put his perfect mark on the line against seven rivals in the Gulfstream Park Derby. Trained by Jane Cibelli, the Lion Heart gelding crushed maiden special weight foes at Monmouth Park and entry-level allowance opponents at Parx Racing in his first two starts, winning by a combined 11 1/2 lengths. After winning his last two at six furlongs, Purple Egg will stretch out to a one-turn mile Tuesday with new rider Joe Rocco Jr.

"The first time I saw this horse gallop, I said 'What a stride!' He did things so easily," Cibelli said recently. "His last race was his toughest after the first two came to him rather easily. I've always thought he wanted to go long."

Star Contender was among the leading two-year-olds at Woodbine in 2012, winning the $250,000 Cup and Saucer Stakes and finishing second in the $250,000 Coronation Futurity on November 10. Those races were on turf and Polytrack and the Henny Hughes colt is set to make his dirt debut for trainer Mark Casse. Star Contender will adds blinkers and regular rider Patrick Husbands has the assignment.

"We had a lot of nice two-year-olds this year and he was the greenest of the bunch," Casse said Wednesday morning from Palm Meadows. "He's Canadian-bred and there are so many good races for them at Woodbine, we just left him up there. He's trained very well on dirt, but it's a question you want to answer."

Almost English could attract support in his first stakes appearance. A $160,000 Keeneland September yearling purchase, the gray Tapit colt has made three starts, impressively breaking his maiden second-time out at Parx Racing before recording a third in a November 7 allowance at Churchill Downs. Jockey Jose Lezcano will be in the saddle for trainer Nick Zito.

Sr. Quisqueyano, runner-up un the Jack Price Juvenile, Birdonthewire and Foolish Pleasure in his last three outings, is entered for conditioner Luis Olivares, and Uptown Anthem also placed in a couple of Calder stakes last fall for trainer Bill Kaplan. Undrafted exits a sharp two-length allowance/optional claiming score on Gulfstream's turf and will make his dirt bow in the Gulfstream Park Derby for owner and New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Walker. John Velazquez retains the mount for Wesley Ward.

Itsmyluckyday and Joshua's Comprise complete the field.

Merit Man rolled to a 5 1/2-length victory in the Tim Conway Stakes two starts back (Benoit Photo)

Merit Man figures to be a solid favorite in the six-furlong Spectacular Bid for trainer Bob Hess Jr. The Florida-bred son of With Distinction won his first two starts at Del Mar and Santa Anita and went into the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint at Santa Anita on November 2 as the 1-to-2 favorite. He led every step but the last, losing a nose decision to longshot Hightail, and the bay colt will receive a switch to the hot-riding Joel Rosario here.

"He ran a great race (in the Breeders' Cup)," Hess said from California Friday afternoon. "I think he got to loafing a little bit out there on the lead. We think we've learned a few things about him since then and he's probably best with a target to run at. I'll be there tomorrow and we'll school him in the paddock Sunday."

Brave Dave is among the most experienced and accomplished in the Spectacular Bid line-up with jockey Paco Lopez re-united with the colt for trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. A homebred son of Put It Back, Brave Dave won his career debut at Calder on June 30 and shipped to Monmouth Park with Plesa's summer division.

Brave Dave made his second start in the Grade 2 Sanford Stakes at Saratoga on July 22, finishing fourth behind Bern Identity after prompting the pace and then drifting out to the middle of the track in the stretch. From the Sanford, Brave Dave won three straight: the Grade 3 Sapling Stakes at Monmouth on September 2, the Birdonthewire on September 29 and the Jack Price Juvenile on November 10. In his last outing, Brave Dave finished second by a length as the 1-2 favorite to Purple Egg in the Inaugural.

"I have a lot of respect for Jane Cibelli's horse (Purple Egg) that beat us, but there were some things that worked against us that day," Plesa said. "First, he (Brave Dave) had to ship up there and then we had a little bug in our barn at the time and when we scoped him he had a little mucous. He's 110 percent now."

Little Distorted has run only once but can't be dismissed from top three consideration in his stakes bow. The Distorted Humor colt made a flashy debut at Belmont Park on October 28, earning a 102 BRIS Speed rating while scoring by 2 1/4 lengths, and he was sold and transferred to Darrin Miller afterward. Javier Castellano will ride for the first time.

Rounding out the six-horse Spectacular Bid field is Rockyshomerun, Cat Five Hurricane and City of Weston.

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