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Merit Man to take stab at nine-furlong Florida Derby

The Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby picked up a surprise candidate in Merit Man, who figures to pick up the pace for the 62nd running of Gulfstream Park's marquee race for three-year-olds.

Trainer Bob Hess said Wednesday morning that the prospect of a short field prompted him to think about running his crack sprinter in the 1 1/8-mile Kentucky Derby prep. After Merit Man worked seven furlongs in 1:29 Monday morning at Gulfstream, Hess firmed up his colt's status for the Florida Derby.

"We waited until we worked him seven-eighths. While one would say he's probably going to be better sprinting, he worked brilliantly, finished real well and galloped out real strong," Hess said. "I just think it's a good time with a small field to take a shot for a lot of money. I could have run him here this weekend (in Sunday's $70,000 Lord Avie) and made 40 grand. In this race, he's Grade 1-placed and he makes 120 grand, and if he wins, we're even luckier."

Merit Man has excelled at sprint distances during his five race career. After winning his first two races, including the $100,000 Tim Conway at Santa Anita, Merit Man was nosed out of a victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint. The son of With Distinction returned to his winning ways in the $100,000 Spectacular Bid on New Year's Day at Gulfstream before finishing a troubled fourth in the Grade 2 Hutcheson on February 2.

Hess expects Merit Man to set the pace while stretching out around two turns for the first time.

"He's not a run-off (horse) by any means. He's a lazy, lazy, lazy horse. That's why I've had the blinkers on him sprinting. But the blinkers are coming off him for this race," said Hess, who reported that Kent Desormeaux will have the mount. "He's not going to run off and go :44. He'll have a good rhythm with :23, :46 and maybe 1:09, but he'll do that easily. Hopefully, he'll have enough genetics to hold on for the last eighth."

Hess said he's had a lot of success while stretching out sprinters in two-turn races for the first time.

"We've been very successful. Not with a closing sprinter; closing sprinters are closing sprinters. But speed sprinters in their first two-turn start will defy reality often times," he said. "They get out there, slow down and keep going."

Hess has no plans to put Merit Man on the Kentucky Derby trail beyond the Florida Derby.

"This is a one-time deal. Like I mentioned, the first time is a sprinter's best route," he said.

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