The $750,000, Grade 1 Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa Saturday at Gulfstream Park brings together a field of 11 with 100 “Road to the Derby” points going to the winner and guaranteeing a start in the gate on the first Saturday in May for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. The likely betting favorite is Greatest Honour on the strength of his back-to-back wins in the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes and the Grade 2 Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes. Trained by Shug McGaughey, who won the Florida Derby and then the Kentucky Derby in 2013 with Orb, Greatest Honour is the logical choice.
Then again, Todd Pletcher, who has won four of the last seven editions of the Florida Derby, saddles Known Agenda off a sparkling 11-length win in a 1 1/8-mile race on Feb. 26 at Gulfstream, the same distance as the Florida Derby. Horses with positive results in recent stakes also must be counted as contenders, and there are three of those. Papetu was third behind Greatest Honour in the Fountain of Youth after rallying from last of 10 in the early stages. Nova Rags finished second last month in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes. Spielberg ships in from California for trainer Bob Baffert off a runner-up effort in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes. The rest of the field consists of a number of horses who have failed to be a factor in stakes or that are stepping up in class off maiden or allowance races. Among those, Collaborate was a 12 ½-length winner at a mile (going one turn) last month in a maiden race and Quantum Leap won a maiden race at the same mile and an eighth trip as the Florida Derby, both at Gulfstream Park. Soup and Sandwich won a two-turn race allowance race at Tampa Bay Downs. Sigiloso moves to dirt off a pair of modest efforts in stakes on grass including a fifth-place finish in the Palm Beach Stakes last month. Jirafales was fifth in both the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth, while Southern Passage most recently was runner-up in a one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park and sports a career record of one-for-eight.
Analysis and main win contenders:
There’s no doubt Greatest Honour has impressively dispatched a total of 17 other horses in winning the Holy Bull Stakes by nearly six lengths in January and then the Fountain of Youth Stakes by 1 ½ lengths last month. There’s also no arguing Todd Pletcher always has a very strong hand with whatever horse he starts in the Florida Derby, given his past success in this race. That’s why Known Agenda will get slight preference over Greatest Honour as the top win contender in this year’s edition. In only the second start of his career last November and stretching out off a runner-up effort at six furlongs, Known Agenda won a race at Aqueduct traveling the 1 1/8-mile distance of the Florida Derby and did so with the maturity of a much older horse as he battled head-and-head the entire last eighth of a mile, never giving up. The horse he defeated? Greatest Honour. The colt then underperformed in two stakes starts, posting a third-place effort in the Remsen Stakes last December and then a poor fifth-place finish in the Sam F. Davis Stakes in February – but Known Agenda grew up big time to win last month at Gulfstream Park at 1 1/8 miles, looking like a horse with a very bright future. After stalking in fourth position early, Known Agenda moved easily while four paths wide to the lead then opened up to win by 11 lengths. Not only was his 103 Equibase Speed Figure higher than the 101 figure Greatest Honour earned winning the Fountain of Youth Stakes one day later, there’s little doubt Known Agenda could have run faster if needed. He’s already proven at 1 1/8 miles, and Known Agenda has the breeding to win on Saturday and also contend in many more prestigious stakes for 3-year-olds down the road. An easy STATS Race Lens query reveals that his sire, Curlin, has had seven male 3-year-old stakes winners at distances from a mile and an eighth to a mile and a quarter from a sample of 15 horses. That group includes Good Magic, Exaggerator and Vino Rosso. As such, I believe Known Agenda is going to take a big step forward to win the Florida Derby and stamp himself a strong contender for the Kentucky Derby as well.
As mentioned above, Greatest Honour was defeated by Known Agenda by a head last November at the distance of Saturday’s Florida Derby before winning three straight races, including the two local preps for the Florida Derby. In each win starting with the one on December 26 which earned a career-best 106 figure, Greatest Honour has shown the traits of a tremendous athlete, moving as the jockey asks and whooshing by the field. In the Fountain of Youth Stakes last month, Greatest Honour was five paths wide on the far turn when moving from eighth to fourth, and then to the lead, and he was unthreatened in the late stages. Jose Ortiz has been aboard for the last two wins and rides back, and there will be a lot of adrenaline flowing in the race as his brother Irad Ortiz Jr. will be aboard main threat Known Agenda. There’s little doubt Greatest Honour loves the Gulfstream Park surface where he is undefeated, and the stretch battle between these two horses could be one for the ages.
Spielberg continues to earn points to run in the Kentucky Derby and has 15 to date. The runner-up in the Florida Derby gets 40 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby, and if Spielberg can secure those he should have enough to get a spot in the Derby starting gate. Although he earned a career best 103 figure breaking his maiden at a mile last November, Spielberg hasn’t improved since then, although he did earn a 101 figure when winning the Los Alamitos Futurity in December. After a poor fourth in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes in January, Spielberg was clearly second best in the Southwest Stakes in February, defeating the third-place horse by 4 ¼ lengths – although he was no match for winner Essential Quality who won by the same margin. One notable thing is that in spite of all of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has achieved, he’s never won the Florida Derby. When compared to the fact McGaughey and Pletcher have accounted for five of the last eight winners in this race, it appears Spielberg is going to have to greatly exceed his best effort to date to win Saturday’s renewal – although that is not an impossible task.
The rest of the field, with their best representative Equibase Speed Figures, is Collaborate (97), Jirafales (86), Nova Rags (89), Papetu (96), Quantum Leap (92), Sigiloso (99), Soup and Sandwich (99) and Southern Passage (93).