Five Key Takeaways from Florida Derby Day

The horses break out of the starting gate for the 2018 Xpressbet Florida Derby on March 31 at Gulfstream Park. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Tom Pedulla presents five takeaways from the Grade 1 Xpressbet Florida Derby Day on Saturday at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla.:  

Bob Coglianese/Gulfstream Park

RECORD-SETTING SAEZ: South Florida has been very good to Luis Saez since the graduate of the Laffit Pincay Jr. Jockey School broke in there in 2009. He was a finalist for the Eclipse Award as leading apprentice jockey that year and has soared to great heights since then. He broke Javier Castellano’s 2013-'14 record for most wins during Gulfstream Park’s championship meet when he urged home Figarella’s Queen in the $150,000 Sanibel Island Stakes on Saturday for his 133rd victory. His success included a pair of record-tying, seven-win afternoons. “I come here every day to try to win a race,” he said, adding, “I feel blessed by God.”

NOT SO DREAMY: As comebacks go, the return of 2017 Kentucky Derby champion Always Dreaming left something to be desired. He ran steadily but unspectacularly in placing second to Conquest Big E in the Grade 2, $300,000 Gulfstream Park Hardacre Mile. Conquest Big E was unchallenged early and drew off late. Trainer Todd Pletcher is not sure what his next move will be with Always Dreaming, whose performance dropped off sharply after convincing wins in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby in a falloff attributed to a severe case of ulcers. “I would say everything is in play,” Pletcher said.

PATIENCE REWARDED: Trainer Dale Romans can be a patient man. Coach Rocks left him no choice as she failed to reach the winner’s circle through six starts before she coasted by eight lengths on Feb. 14 at Gulfstream Park. And now Romans has a Longines Kentucky Oaks filly on his hands after she took the Grade 2, $300,000 Gulfstream Park Oaks. “I never expected her to lose,” Romans said of the long journey to the first Friday in May. “Every time I’ve brought her over, I thought she would win. It took her time to figure out she is as good as she is.”

NOT SO FAST: Promises Fulfilled caught the field by surprise when Romans instructed Irad Ortiz Jr. to gun for the lead in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and watched contentedly as the colt went gate to wire. Romans kept to that strategy with Robby Albarado aboard for the Florida Derby, but this time it backfired because very fast Strike Power went with him. They tore through the opening quarter in 21.95 seconds in the 1 1/8-mile contest, cooking each other. Strike Power ran next to last. Promises Fulfilled could see them all in ninth. “You live by the sword, you die by the sword,” Romans said.

ONE TO WATCH: Hall of Famer Bill Mott, not known for asking too much of his horses too soon, raised eyebrows when he entered Hofburg in the Florida Derby after the son of Tapit broke his maiden in his second start. Turns out, Mott knew exactly what he was doing since Hofburg, bred and owned by Juddmonte Farms, closed resolutely for jockey Jose Ortiz to be second, three lengths behind Audible. “Naturally, winning would have been the only thing that would have been better, but he ran well and he galloped out well,” Mott said. “He took a lot of dirt and he was very professional. He did everything right.” Stay tuned.

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