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By Ed Gray
Soldat can’t exactly be regarded as a work in progress, considering all he had already accomplished during his 2-year-old campaign. His winter campaign in South Florida, though, has been all about progression.
The 3-year-old son of War Front established himself as a prominent turf performer last year while breaking his maiden in the With Anticipation Stakes (G3) at Saratoga last summer and finishing a troubled second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G2), but he’s been making steady strides forward on dirt at Gulfstream Park this winter.
With an eye toward this year’s Kentucky Derby, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin couldn’t resist the temptation to test Soldat on dirt in an allowance race at Gulfstream on Jan. 27, and the Kentucky-bred colt passed with flying colors. Yet, the son of War Front had more to prove to McLaughlin because his front-running victory by more than 10 lengths was achieved on a sloppy track.
“We felt he’d handle a fast track, but sometimes you like to see it on paper,” McLaughlin said.
Soldat came back in the Fountain of Youth (G2) on Feb. 26, the major prep for the $1 million Florida Derby on April 3, and dominated a solid field of 3-year-olds on a fast track while posting a front-running two-length victory.
“We see it now on paper that he won on a fast track, because it was always on muddy, sloppy and good in his other three dirt races,” said McLaughlin, whose Derby hopeful had begun his career with a pair of runner-up finishes on ‘off’ tracks last year before heading to turf. “Now, we see it in the Form. It’s fact now that he handles the fast track.”
With his two impressive showings at Gulfstream, Soldat had distinguished himself as one of the top contenders for the Kentucky Derby, but his trainer still would like to see a bit more from his colt. The training of a 3-year-old colt on the Road to the Kentucky Derby is all about giving that colt a broad education to prepare him for as many racing scenarios as possible.
While Soldat has excelled while winning his two Gulfstream Park starts in front-running fashion, the dark bay colt hasn’t won from off the pace on dirt. Although Soldat has demonstrated an ability to rate and win on turf and his trainer expects him to settle off the pace on dirt, McLaughlin wants to know how his colt will react to dirt being kicked in his face.
“The only thing we probably have to do now if for him to face the kickback, so we’ll handle that in the morning next Sunday,” McLaughlin said. “We’ll put a couple horses in front of him and make sure he handles the kickback. He’ll rate fine. We want him to handle the kickback.”
Soldat, who breezed four furlongs in 48 4/5 at Palm Meadows Sunday, may or may have the opportunity to get kickback in the Florida Derby, but McLaughlin expects his colt to be sharp form for his final prep for the Kentucky Derby.
“I feel like he came out of his last race better than he did after the slop, because he got pretty tired that day,” McLaughlin said. “The Fountain of Youth, he came out of it a little bit better.”
While McLaughlin has covered a lot of ground with Soldat this winter, he not at all worried about Soldat’s preparedness to readily cover the 1-1/4 miles of the Kentucky Derby.
“Distance,” he said, is an advantage for us.”