By Jason Shandler/The Blood-Horse (Edited)

Virginia-bred Quality Road turned back a bid from even-money favorite Dunkirk in upper stretch and drew away for a sensational 1 3/4-length victory in the $750,000 Florida Derby (gr. I) March 28 at Gulfstream Park. The son of Elusive Quality set a new 1 1/8-mile course record in 1:47.72.

A homebred of Edward P. Evans, Quality Road earned his second consecutive graded stakes win and established himself as one of the top contenders for the $2-million Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) May 2 at Churchill Downs. He banked $450,000 for the score.

With John Velazquez aboard, Quality Road took advantage of a quick early pace set by longshot Casey’s On Call, who posted splits of :23.49 for a quarter-mile and :46.83 for a half-mile. The Jimmy Jerkens trainee made his winning move midway on the far turn, while Theregoesjojo, also close-up throughout, came up to challenge under Kent Desormeaux. Quality Road covered six furlongs in 1:10.66.

But Dunkirk, a $3.7-million yearling making only his third start for trainer Todd Pletcher, came from off the pace with a bold five-wide move under Garrett Gomez and was Quality Road’s biggest threat when they made the turn. Dunkirk, who scored a convincing allowance victory at the Florida Derby distance Feb. 19, looked Quality Road in the eye in upper stretch and appeared to have the leader at his mercy with a furlong remaining. But Quality Road found more and slowly inched clear until putting the race away inside the sixteenth-pole.

After the race, Jerkens was ecstatic with his colt, while Pletcher complained that the Gulfstream strip had an unfair speed advantage.

“Today’s effort was terrific,” Jerkens said. “He sat nice for John, didn’t give him any trouble, and rated. When we went by the pacesetter, John gave him a breather. That was the whole thing. He didn’t open up. He had a lot left to deal with Dunkirk.

Quality Road, who is out of the Strawberry Road mare Kobla, entered the race off a convincing 4 1/4-length score in the Feb. 28 Fountain of Youth (gr. II), which was run at one mile. In his 2009 debut, he finished runner-up to Theregoesjojo in a seven-furlong allowance event. The Florida Derby was his first two-turn test, which he answered emphatically. Overall, Quality Road is 3-1-0 from four lifetime starts with earnings of $632,830.

To read more about the race and the other Triple Crown contenders click here.

(AP Photos/Gulfstream Park)