Tom Pedulla presents five key takeaways from Florida Derby day, which was held without fans on Saturday at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla., due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The contest awarded qualifying points for the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on a 100-40-20-10 basis to the top four finishers.
AUTHORITATIVE VICTORY: In a testament to the training of Barclay Tagg and his assistant, Robin Smullen, it would be hard to recall a Kentucky Derby prep race in which a 3-year-old was more responsive than Tiz the Law was in his convincing triumph in the $750,000 Curlin Florida Derby. The youngster broke sharply, rated kindly and responded with an overpowering kick for Manny Franco, his patient jockey, upon receiving his cue. “I want to give all the credit to the horse,” Franco said, adding, “All the time when I called on him a little bit, he was there for me.”
WORRISOME TIME?: If there was fault to be found with Tiz the Law’s performance in the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby, it had to do with the final time of 1:50. It was the slowest clocking for a Florida Derby winner since Materiality’s 1:52.30 in 2015. Always Dreaming, who parlayed a Florida Derby triumph into a successful run for the roses in 2017, zipped through the prep race in 1:47.47. Tagg noted the ease of the 4 ¼-length score against 80-1 bomb Shivaree and said, “It could have been faster, but he didn’t need to go faster, so it’s better to save a little.”
BLOSSOMING TALENT: Florida Derby runner-up Shivaree has been a work in progress for trainer Ralph Nicks, but one that has turned very rewarding. Although the Florida-bred son of Awesome of Course did not reach the winner’s circle until his fifth start, breaking through last Nov. 23 at Gulfstream Park West, he has been highly competitive since then. He has not finished worse than second in his last six starts, with three victories. After Shivaree placed second in the seven-furlong Swale (Grade 3) and the six-furlong Hutcheson, Nicks made a key equipment change for the Florida Derby by removing blinkers that had been added almost from the outset. “The reason we didn’t need them was we were going a distance. I didn’t need him to be as focused early,” Nicks said. He admitted he still needed convincing about Shivaree’s ability to handle a route of ground. “You never know. He needs to come back and do it again probably,” the trainer said.
ANOTHER BARGAIN: When it comes to finding bargains at sales, few, if any, can top the keen eye of trainer Kenny McPeek. He will forever be known for spotting two-time Horse of the Year Curlin as a $57,000 yearling. He captured the Holy Bull last year with $50,000 find Harvey Wallbanger. Now, along comes Swiss Skydiver, a $35,000 purchase for McPeek at Keeneland’s September Yearling Sale, to pull an upset in the $200,000 Gulfstream Park Oaks for owner Peter Callahan and put herself on the road to the Longines Kentucky Oaks. McPeek noted how vigorously he works every major sale and said, “I wait for a horse that sticks out and she stuck out. She was a big, strong young horse and she’s developed into a beautiful filly to race.”
NOT THIS TIME: History suggests it is difficult to bet against trainer Todd Pletcher in the Florida Derby. He has won the major Kentucky Derby prep a record five times, including four of the last six years. He appeared to have two solid shots this spring with Gouverneur Morris, ridden by John Velazquez, and Candy Tycoon, who had the benefit of Luis Saez in the irons. Neither was ever a factor, with Gouverneur Morris, a well-regarded son of white-hot sire Constitution, coming in fourth and Candy Tycoon, second in the Fountain of Youth Stakes in his previous start, no better than sixth.