HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. -- He was right.
Trainer Patrick Byrne insisted for three weeks that his decision to scratch Take Charge Indy from the Tampa Bay Derby was the correct one, even if it meant rolling the dice on a Kentucky Derby berth against Union Rags and El Padrino in the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby on Saturday at Gulfstream Park.
And then Take Charge Indy and jockey Calvin Borel backed up Byrne's confidence by stealing the Florida Derby, leading from virtually start to finish in a race whose outcome will be debated right up to post time for the Kentucky Derby on May 5.
Take Charge Indy ($17.40) was best by one length over Reveron, with 2-5 favorite Union Rags third after a dreadful trip. El Padrino was fourth and was followed, in order, by Neck 'n Neck, Fort Loudon, News Pending, and Z Camelot.
Take Charge Indy completed 1 1/8 miles on the fast main track in 1:48.79.
"I know my horse. I knew he was ready. I knew he was fit and up to the task," said Byrne, who was equal parts satisfied, humble, and exasperated in his post-race comments, saying he told a reporter on Friday, "Do we have to talk about the Tampa Bay Derby for the rest of my life?"
Not now. Take Charge Indy won for just the second time in six starts, but he has been among the division's leaders throughout his career. And his victory was yet another stakes win for horses who competed in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, which has become the biggest key race for Derby preps in years.
Take Charge Indy was fifth in the Breeders' Cup, and had run just once since then, in a first-level allowance at Gulfstream on Jan. 29, finishing second to El Padrino. So, the Florida Derby was his first start in more than two months.
"I didn't think he was going to have to run as hard as he did when he ran against El Padrino," Byrne said. "He needs five or six weeks between races. When he drew the 10 hole at Tampa" -- which Byrne did not like -- "he was doing so good, I thought, 'Why don't we take a shot in the Florida Derby?'"
Byrne had willing partners in owners Chuck and Maribeth Sandford, who gave him carte blanche. Byrne thought racing at Gulfstream would be beneficial, too, being as Take Charge Indy had run well here earlier in the meet.
But Take Charge Indy still had to defeat two of the leading lights among this year's Derby crop. Enter Borel. The winner of the Kentucky Derby three times in the last five years, Borel recognized the track profile at Gulfstream on Saturday and seized the lead leaving the gate. Reveron hounded him throughout, and briefly took the lead about a quarter-mile out, but Take Charge Indy had plenty left after six furlongs in 1:12.09.
"I knew if I could get 1:11 and 3, or 1:12, he'd finish," Borel said. "He needed that race last time. He's got a lot of potential, with his pedigree."
Take Charge Indy is by A.P. Indy and is out of the multiple stakes-winning mare Take Charge Lady.
Union Rags, who finished third, was in traffic for much of the race while between horses and only got free late. He also had to have his right hind shoe re-shod in the saddling paddock, which caused a minor delay.
"We were in traffic and they were riding me," said Julien Leparoux, who rode Union Rags. "It was just bad luck. Nobody paid any attention to the winner. They let him go. I guess they just target the favorite."
Michael Matz, the trainer of Union Rags, said Leparoux "said he was disappointed in himself, not the horse."
"He said he should have been closer to the pace the way the track is," Matz said. "Riders make mistakes.
"I didn't expect this to happen today, but I'm not going to trade with anybody, that's for sure."
El Padrino, the Risen Star winner, was outside of Union Rags, with jockey Javier Castellano -- who used to ride Union Rags -- keeping the favorite bottled up. But when Castellano asked El Padrino to take advantage of that position, he had nothing.
"He was flat. I don't know why," Castellano said.
"He just didn't finish," said Todd Pletcher, who trains El Padrino. "We'll see how he comes out of it and decide where to go from there."
--additional reporting by Mike Welsch