Run at 1 1/8 miles, Saturday’s $1.1 million, Grade 1 Xpressbet Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park is a 100-40-20-10 points race on the road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.
Five of the last 12 Florida Derby winners, including last year’s victor, Always Dreaming, have gone on to capture the Kentucky Derby. The others are Nyquist (2016), Orb (2013), Big Brown (2008) and Barbaro (2006).
With 24 winners exiting the race, the Florida Derby is the most productive Kentucky Derby prep.
With exception of Nyquist (2016) and Empire Maker (2003), all of the recent Florida Derby winners have been based locally.
The Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes has produced just one of the last seven (but four of the last 11) Florida Derby winners. This year, just three of the nine entrants exit that race: race winner Promises Fulfilled, runner-up Strike Power, and Storm Runner (7th).
Todd Pletcher (Audible) has won the last three of the last four editions of the Florida Derby (Always Dreaming, 2017; Materiality, 2015; and Constitution, 2014) and four since 2007 (Scat Daddy). He did not run a horse in 2016 edition.
Audible’s jockey, John Velazquez, has won four of the last nine Florida Derbys (Always Dreaming, 2017; Materiality, 2015, Orb, 2013; and Quality Road, 2009).
Although there haven’t been many shocking results lately, the last favorite to win the Florida Derby was Big Brown 2008.
Here are five questions that must be answered ...
1. Can Audible repeat his monstrous Holy Bull Stakes win?
It happened so long ago (eight weeks) that it’s easy to forget just how impressive this New York-bred son of Into Mischief really was in the Grade 2 Holy Bull. He enjoyed a catbird’s seat while three wide, took over nearing the turn, shook off a serious threat, and attacked the ground in the stretch, winning by 5 ½ lengths.
The second- and third-place finishers from the Holy Bull, Free Drop Billy and Tiz Mischief, respectively, have not impressed moving forward, but Enticed, who ran fourth, did return to win the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes impressively.
Much has been made about Audible’s morning workouts, particularly the recent move on March 24 when he was beaten by second-tier 3-year-old Vino Rosso. Famously lazy, he’s never been a good work horse, but the final prep was even less inspiring than usual. How good, or bad, a horse is in the morning doesn’t always translate to the afternoon, but at this level, it must be taken into consideration.
For future reference, Funny Cide in 2003 was the only New York-bred to win the Kentucky Derby.
Joe’s answer: I got really excited about Audible’s Holy Bull win, but I can’t get his lazy workout a week before Florida Derby out of my mind, therefore I’m conflicted. I can’t see myself betting ON him as the favorite, but it might be tougher for me to bet against him.
If not Audible, then who?
2. Does Catholic Boy deserve the hype?
Don’t laugh, but Catholic Boy is the kind of horse who, if he makes it, will take lots of money in the Kentucky Derby, just because of his name. Despite his second as the favorite in an uninspiring Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, he was still bet down to seventh choice (21-1) in third Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Smart or sentimental money? You tell me.
A quality turf horse as a 2-year-old, Catholic Boy proved he could handle dirt, too, by winning the 1 1/8-mile, Grade 2 Remsen Stakes at year’s end. In tight early, he worked his way out into the clear, took over on his own, and he won under a hand ride to defeat Avery Island by nearly five lengths. That foe subsequently returned to win the Grade 3 Withers Stakes before being knocked off the Kentucky Derby trail due to injury.
Sent off as the odds-on favorite in the Sam F. Davis, Catholic Boy broke a step slowly and was hung three wide on both turns. He put a head in front of longshot race leader Flameaway late before hanging just before the finish line. Flameaway did legitimize himself by finishing a good second behind 19-1 Quip in the Grade 3 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby.
Joe’s answer: The pedigree is versatile and Catholic Boy has proven himself to be a good dirt horse, but I think he can be better than good if (when) he returns to the grass. He’s trained great leading up the Florida Derby, there are questions surrounding the other favorites, and the way the Florida Derby sets up pace-wise, he should get a great trip.
Despite the recent and overall success of the Florida Derby as a Kentucky Derby prep, if Catholic Boy wins, which he very well may, I doubt I will look at it as an impactful race moving forward to Louisville.
3. How does the pace of the Florida Derby shake out?
Joe’s answer: Coming off consecutive front-running wins in one-turn races, in the moment I was very surprised Strike Power didn’t make the lead in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth, but in retrospect it makes sense. The connections wanted to find out if he could rate and finish over a distance of ground, and he certainly passed that test. Meanwhile it was eventual winner Promises Fulfilled who made the lead and controlled the action through very moderate quarter-mile splits – :23.80, :48.39, and 1:12.60.
Drawn on the rail for the Florida Derby, Strike Power should be sent, and trainer Dale Romans has made it clear that Promises Fulfilled, who already has 52 Kentucky Derby points in the bank, will also be intent on the lead.
Millionaire Runner probably will hang up close for the opening half-mile or so, and newly blinkered Mississippi may also be keen early.
It’s hard to envision a scenario where the early pace isn’t fast, or at least honest.
4. Who is the under-the-radar horse with the best chance?
Joe’s answer: That’s an easy one, it’s Hofburg.
By Tapit out of the Touch Gold mare Soothing Touch, Hofburg a half-brother (same dam [mother], different sire [father]) to the versatile $1.35-million-earning Emollient and the $220K turf banker Courtier.
Trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, he debuted with an even sprint effort at Saratoga on Sept. 2 and resurfaced on Fountain of Youth day at Gulfstream. Hung out in post-position 11, he was very wide the entire trip. He took the lead off the turn for home, waited on a rival late, raced greenly to the finish line, and survived a claim of foul to win. The race was nearly 1 ½ seconds slower than the Fountain of Youth, but there is every reason to believe Hofburg can take a giant step forward in Florida Derby.
Both Mott and jockey Jose Ortiz learned a lot about the colt that day, most significantly, he probably wants a target to run at. He idled once he made the lead, and it nearly cost him the maiden victory.
In addition, it’s not in Mott’s DNA to throw a young horse to the wolves, so there’s a chance Hofburg could be something special.
5. Who wins the Florida Derby and why?
Joe’s answer: Audible’s recent workout concerns me slightly and I would never bet on him as the favorite because of it. I’m skeptical that Catholic Boy is a top-tier dirt horse. Strike Power and Promises Fulfilled are probably will compromise each other’s chances early on. So that leaves the upside horse, Hofburg. He’ll need to take a big step up, but the Kentucky Derby landscape changes race to race, and I do like his upside.
Joe’s Florida Derby picks: 1. Hofburg 2. Audible 3. Catholic Boy 4. Strike Power