Using History to Handicap the 2020 Florida Derby

Gambling
Nyquist (second from left, red shadow roll, purple and white silks) wheels into the stretch with the rest of the Florida Derby field in 2016 en route to winning. He is the only horse in the past 10 years to win the race shipping in from out of state. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Although the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus has shut down horse racing at many tracks throughout North America, Gulfstream Park in Florida continues to race on without spectators, which means racing fans will get to enjoy Saturday’s $750,000, Grade 1 Curlin Florida Derby from the comfort of their homes.

The 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby has long been a lucrative prep race on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, producing six Kentucky Derby winners – Monarchos (2001), Barbaro (2006), Big Brown (2008), Orb (2013), Nyquist (2016), and Always Dreaming (2017) – since the turn of the century. If you’re looking for a horse with the talent to contend for victory at Churchill Downs this September, the Florida Derby is a great place to start.

But first, you have to find the Florida Derby winner, preferably before the race is run so that you can fully capitalize on your opinion from a wagering perspective. Fortunately, examining the history of the Florida Derby can point out trends and tendencies to help us identify the type of horse most likely to succeed in Gulfstream’s signature Kentucky Derby prep race.

With that in mind, let’s dig through the data and see what the stats reveal….

Pace makes the race

Front-runners have fared well in the Florida Derby over the last 10 years, recording four victories. Another speedy runner, Always Dreaming, prevailed after tracking the pace in second position early on. But late runners have also won their fair share of Florida Derbys, with Audible, Dialed In, and Ice Box all charging from the back of the pack to land in the winner’s circle. Notably, their late-running victories occurred in the three Florida Derbys with the fastest half-mile fractions (all sub-:47) over the last decade.

In short, a little pace handicapping will help you determine which running style is most likely to succeed in the 2020 Florida Derby. If the race seems destined to unfold at a rapid tempo, favor runners who will be rallying from off the pace. Otherwise, look for speed horses to excel.

Year

Winner

Position after first 1/2-mile

1/2-mile & 3/4-mile times

(track condition)

2019

Maximum Security

1st by 0.5 lengths (11 starters)

48.98, 1:12.90 (fast)

2018

Audible

8th by 8.5 lengths (9 starters)

46.37, 1:11.68 (fast)

2017

Always Dreaming

2nd by 1.5 lengths (10 starters)

47.08, 1:10.75 (fast)

2016

Nyquist

1st by 0.5 lengths (10 starters)

47.09, 1:11.39 (good)

2015

Materiality

1st by 0.5 lengths (9 starters)

48.24, 1:12.51 (fast)

2014

Constitution

4th by 2 lengths (8 starters)

48.19, 1:12.00 (fast)

2013

Orb

5th by 4 lengths (10 starters)

48.56, 1:12.89 (fast)

2012

Take Charge Indy

1st by 1 length (8 starters)

47.71, 1:12.09 (fast)

2011

Dialed In

8th by 10.5 lengths (8 starters)

46.35, 1:10.63 (fast)

2010

Ice Box

11th by 9.5 lengths (11 starters)

46.46, 1:10.76 (fast)

Short-priced contenders usually win, but favorites can be beaten

In a rather unusual trend, eight of the last 10 Florida Derby winners started at 4.80-1 or less, but only one (Audible at 8-5) was the betting favorite. This oddity might be due to the classy caliber of competition the Florida Derby typically attracts. With two or three standout contenders in the race each year, it’s difficult for major longshots to prevail. But among the obvious contenders, bettors frequently favor the wrong horse, allowing the second or third choice to win at a short price.

Todd Pletcher and John Velazquez win more often than not

Gulfstream’s perennial leading trainer Todd Pletcher has won the Florida Derby five times, including four of the last six editions (2018, 2017, 2015, 2014). And since Pletcher didn’t saddle a starter in 2016, he’s actually won four of the last five Florida Derbys in which he’s entered a horse.

Even more impressive is the record of Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez. Since 2009, Velazquez has ridden in eight editions of the Florida Derby, winning five while finishing no worse than third in the remaining three. Now there’s a fantastic streak of success!

Local Runners Have Dominated

Almost without exception, horses exiting races at Gulfstream Park have dominated recent editions of the Florida Derby. Of the 30 horses to have finished in the Florida Derby trifecta over the last 10 years, 25 emerged from races at Gulfstream, including nine of the 10 winners.

The only out-of-state shipper to win the Florida Derby during the last 10 years was champion 2-year-old Nyquist, a future Kentucky Derby winner who parlayed a win in Santa Anita Park’s Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes into victory at Gulfstream. The other four non-Gulfstream runners to crack the Florida Derby trifecta entered off prep runs at nearby Tampa Bay Downs.

But though nine of the last 10 Florida Derby winners prepped at Gulfstream, there has been little consistency as to which races they’ve used to prepare. Audible won the Grade 2 Holy Bull Stakes, Orb and Ice Box contested the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes, Always Dreaming, Constitution, Take Charge Indy, and Dialed In prepped in allowance races, Materiality emerged from the Islamorada Handicap, and Maximum Security prevailed in a starter optional claiming race.

A Recent Victory is Important

Did you know that each of the last seven Florida Derby winners entered the race off a victory? Strong recent form has been critical for success in the Florida Derby, so history suggests favoring horses with last-out wins to their credit is a wise strategy.

Gouverneur Morris (Adam Coglianese/NYRA)

Conclusions

The Florida Derby is expected to attract a large and competitive field. Holy Bull Stakes winner Tiz the Law and runaway Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes victor Ete Indien are among the prospective favorites, along with Sam F. Davis Stakes runner-up Independence Hall.

But history suggests the biggest threat might be Gouverneur Morris. Trained by Todd Pletcher and ridden by John Velazquez, Gouverneur Morris showed promise as a juvenile, winning his debut at Saratoga before finishing second in the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland.

Gouverneur Morris recently returned to action with an allowance victory at Tampa Bay Downs, so he’s following the same path to the Florida Derby as his Pletcher-trained predecessors Always Dreaming and Constitution. Gouverneur Morris will be well-regarded in the wagering, but he’s unlikely to start as the favorite, another historical trend in his favor. His running style is also ideal – he has tactical speed, but is versatile enough to settle behind the leaders. Taking all of this together, Gouverneur Morris looms as a logical candidate to upset the favorites.

Good luck, and enjoy the race!

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