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Kentucky Derby road is all about education

This time of year, horse racing is all about the 3-year-olds, the glamour division, the youngsters who race for floral blankets and TV fame and lucrative futures that include amorous afternoons, and so the sport should be in for considerable excitement.

These 3-year-olds are outstanding, certainly the best group since 2007 (Curlin, Hard Spun, Street Sense) and potentially the best since 1997 (Silver Charm, Free House, Touch Gold).

A few might even race in next month’s Kentucky Derby.

So far, after a cavalcade of preparatory races, I haven’t seen anything to sway me from the January opinion that Uncle Mo, Dialed In and To Honor And Serve are most likely to win America’s most famous race. I point this out because Dialed In and To Honor And Serve, in what will be final preparation for their Kentucky adventure, race Sunday at Gulfstream Park in the $1 million Florida Derby.

Both lost their most recent outing, but as Robert LaPenta, Dialed In’s owner, said, the road to the Kentucky Derby has been “a lot like the NCAA road to the Final Four, where everybody seems to be able to beat everybody.”

But there’s an important distinction: A loss on the road to the Final Four means elimination; a loss on the road to the Derby means education.

Getting to the Derby, after all, is about education and development. Dialed In’s loss should have provided him with plenty of both. Dialed In won the Holy Bull Stakes in only the second start of his career, and he won purely on talent, on his ability to sustain a move and overwhelm rivals. But he’s still learning to be a racehorse.

He lost when he made his first start around two turns, at 1 1/8 miles. The transition from a one-turn to a two-turn race is enormous. It’s like the transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation. And Dialed In lost to an older horse, a capable stablemate named Equestrio.

Trailing early, behind dawdling fractions (49.40 seconds for the opening half-mile), Dialed In rallied strongly (the final three-eighths in 36.93) to be second. Yes, it was a loss, but he learned to conserve energy for the stretch, he learned to advance in traffic, and so it was an educational loss that should have him ready for a big effort on Sunday in the Florida Derby.

To Honor And Serve’s loss in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, where he made his seasonal debut after winning two stakes as a juvenile, was more troubling simply because he showed little in the run down the stretch. He capitulated; he was tired.

But his trainer, Bill Mott, explained that after To Honor And Serve won last year’s Remsen Stakes, the colt was given a vacation and time to grow. And so he was far behind in conditioning when he finished nearly seven lengths behind Soldat in the Fountain of Youth.

“It’s like they go to sleep on you a little bit and need a wake-up call,” Mott said about returning a horse to competition after a layoff. And the Fountain of Youth could have been that wake-up call.

“With the benefit of having the race and some very good work since then, I think it has moved him forward,” Mott said.

“I think he has taken his training well in the last month, and we should be ready to go.”