Tom Pedulla presents five takeaways from this weekend’s racing, which featured two major Kentucky Derby preps in the $750,000 Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa at Gulfstream Park and the $250,000 Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park.
BLINKERS ON: Trainer Todd Pletcher knew he needed to find a source of improvement after Known Agenda finished fifth in the Feb. 6 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. John Velazquez, who rode the colt in the Sam F. Davis, suggested the addition of blinkers. Pletcher’s reward for listening was a Feb 26 allowance romp followed by an impressive 2 ¾-length Florida Derby triumph, the trainer’s record sixth victory in the historic race. “He’s taken awhile to put everything together, and we kept seeing talent in the mornings that he wasn’t necessarily displaying in the afternoons,” Pletcher said. “But we knew it was there.” Ironically, other commitments kept Velazquez from retaining the mount, so Irad Ortiz, Jr. benefitted from the Hall of Famer’s helpful recommendation the last two starts.
ELIGIBLE TO IMPROVE: Soup and Sandwich should have enough qualifying points to advance to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve after he earned 40 points with a runner-up Florida Derby finish in his stakes debut. He may prove to be dangerous in the Run for the Roses if he should put everything together at the ideal time. “I was very pleased, especially if he ever learns what he’s doing,” said trainer Mark Casse. Johnny (Velazquez) said he had to fight with him a little. He stayed on his left lead all the way down the stretch. He’s like that in the morning, too.” Casse feels certain the son of Tapit will improve when it matters most. “The thing that will help him is it was a little difficult to ship him down from Palm Meadows (in nearby Boynton Beach, Fla.) It got him a little worked up. He’ll run a lot better out of his stall at Churchill Downs,” the Hall of Fame conditioner said.
NOT DISCOURAGED: Courtlandt Farms’ Greatest Honour, trained by Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, went off as a heavy Florida Derby favorite after sweeping the Jan. 30 Holy Bull Stakes and the Feb. 27 Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. But regular rider Jose Ortiz and Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey did not sound overly discouraged after Greatest Honour, hindered by a slow start, could do no better than third. “I felt like I was in contention at the quarter pole, but the winner ran a nice race,” Ortiz said. “(Known Agenda) was the best horse (Saturday), but we’ll turn the tables on them on Derby Day, that’s for sure.” Said McGaughey: “I thought Greatest Honour ran fine. I think the winner ran a huge race.”
RECORD HEIGHTS: Irad Ortiz, Jr. used his Florida Derby score to set the record for most wins at Gulfstream Park’s Championship Meet with 138, surpassing the mark set by Luis Saez in 2017-18. Ortiz’s thoughts immediately shifted to the owners and trainers who have entrusted him with top mounts. “I say thanks to all of them,” he said. “When I say all of them, I mean all of them – from the claiming races to the stakes races.” Ortiz is one of only four jockeys to sweep at least three consecutive riding titles, joining Hall of Famer Javier Castellano (2011-2016), Jorge Chavez (1999-2001) and Jeff Fell (1977-1979).
MAJOR BREAKTHROUGH: Trainer Wesley Ward thought he had his first Kentucky Derby starter in 2014 when Pablo Del Monte drew into the field as an also-eligible after finishing third in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. The owners decided to scratch, though, rather than have their horse break from farthest outside in post 20. It looks as though Ward, best known for Royal Ascot success with precocious sprinters, might finally have a Derby runner. M Racing Group’s Like the King, patiently ridden by Drayden Van Dyke, rallied to win the Jeff Ruby Steaks by one length at Turfway Park to earn a Derby berth since the 1 1/8-mile contest on the synthetic Tapeta surface was worth 100 qualifying points for the first time. Ward recalled his previous disappointment in saying, “Now that we’re here again, it’s very exciting.”