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Dominic Imprescia, fairly skillfully disguised as an orchid in his lavender coat and mauve tie, wended his way through knots of horseplayers at Gulfstream Park last Saturday en route to the winner's circle. People grabbed his hand and said, "You showed 'em, Dominic!" and "Way to go, Dom!" And he nodded his thank yous and shook every hand.
To observe Imprescia was to see a moment of irony as vivid as the lavender coat. Just five years ago the trainer's license was suspended for two years on charges that horses under his care at Suffolk Downs had been hopped, and during that time he was barred from every track in America. Couldn't even get near a winner's circle. Now here he was, accepting plaudits as the trainer of Timely Writer, who had just won the $250,000 Florida Derby and, in so doing, had reinforced his position as the very solid favorite to win the Kentucky Derby.
"I love it, I love it!" Imprescia said, heading toward the circle. "He did it easy. Beautiful, beautiful!"
That the race was something of a disappointment had less to do with the way it was run than in the way it finally came up. All week long, there was the expectation that this Florida Derby would be the most exciting renewal of the race since 1957, when the brilliant Gen. Duke smoked Bold Ruler like a salmon, then had him for dinner. This time the winner was to come from among two extremely fast horses, Distinctive Pro and Star Gallant, and the stretch-running Timely Writer. Star Gallant was undefeated in four starts, had numbed clockers with his dazzling works and had his trainer, Lennie Imperio, circling Fantasy Island.
"I think he's as good as Seattle Slew," Imperio said. "That's my opinion. Tomorrow we find out."
In his last start, the mile and a sixteenth Fountain of Youth on March 22 at Gulfstream, Star Gallant had beaten Distinctive Pro by four lengths, but only after Jorge Velasquez, Pro's jockey, had taken back and allowed Star Gallant to set a leisurely pace. Of course, at that rate he was also uncatchable. Trainer Jimmy Croll was so furious with Velasquez that he replaced him with Craig Perret. The pace in the Florida Derby would be fast and honest, and at the far turn the race would be on.
Timely Writer figured to benefit from any such speed on the lead. But then the scenario fell apart. On the morning of the race, Croll announced that Distinctive Pro had a splint on his left front cannon bone, and so the trainer scratched him. That left Star Gallant as the only real speed horse.
"I'd have liked to see Distinctive Pro in there," Imprescia said. "It would make for a truer pace."
But Imprescia clearly was unworried. Just as clearly, he knew how to bring Timely Writer into a race. The colt had won the 1?-mile Flamingo Stakes on March 6, and Imprescia brought him to that race off only one prep, a seven-furlong affair in which Jockey Jeff Fell saw he was hopelessly beaten and didn't abuse the horse. Timely Writer finished sixth. After Timely Writer won the Flamingo by 3� lengths, Imprescia worked him a crisp five-eighths in :59[2/5], then nine days later sent him seven-eighths in 1:26[1/5]. That was nice, and that was it.
"I know my horse," he says.