For the most part, it had been an unusually unproductive Kentucky Derby prep season for trainer Todd Pletcher, but that all changed in a blink of the eye March 27 in a very familiar setting.
The $770,000 Grade 1 Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill 'n' Dale Farms at Xalapa once again put Pletcher in the thick of the chase for the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve as St. Elias Stable's Known Agenda took charge in the stretch and posted a 2 3/4-length victory in Gulfstream Park's definitive prep for the opening leg of the Triple Crown.
Thanks to 100 qualifying points courtesy of Saturday's win, Known Agenda put Pletcher in position to have an 18th straight starter in the May 1 Kentucky Derby, a streak in the demanding 1 1/4-mile classic that dates back to 2004.
"He certainly stamped his ticket today (to the Kentucky Derby)," said Pletcher, whose top horse on the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard before Saturday was Unbridled Honor at No. 35 with 5 points, "and the one exciting thing about him is we've always felt distance was not an issue for him. We feel a mile-and-a-quarter is going to be right up his wheelhouse."
A homebred son of Curlin, Known Agenda has enjoyed a rocky winter since beating Greatest Honour, the 4-5 favorite in the Florida Derby, in a Nov. 8 maiden race at Aqueduct Racetrack. He was then third in the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes and fifth in the Feb. 6 Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs as a 3-2 favorite before he reverted to top form in a Feb. 26 allowance optional claimer at Gulfstream Park where he romped by 11 lengths.
"You want to have five healthy weeks and have everything go smoothly between now and (May 1) but that was a huge, huge step in the right direction today," said Pletcher after a record sixth Florida Derby victory. "It's a meaningful grade 1 win for a really good-looking son of Curlin, so it's exciting."
Since the calendar turned to 2000, Pletcher, a 1-20 shot to be voted into the Hall of Fame this year, has only missed the Kentucky Derby once (in 2003) and won the Run for the Roses twice, most recently with Always Dreaming in 2017. Vinnie Viola of St. Elias Stable and his wife Teresa, were part owners of Always Dreaming, and now has his latest Kentucky Derby candidate in a homebred colt out of the Byron mare Byrama.
"Quite frankly I have to thank John Sparkman, Rory Babich, and Monique Delk, that's the core of our team," said Viola, who also owns the NHL's Florida Panthers. "Sparkman was adamant about Byrama. We weren't sure if we were going to get anything out of her that warranted the mare's talent, but Sparkman said 'I've got the sire.'"
Known Agenda is the third foal by the grade 1-winning Byrama and the lone winner from three foals to race. Her latest off-spring is a yearling filly by Always Dreaming.
"You feel undeserving because you know how hard people work, starting with Todd. He has been very patient with this horse from the moment he got him," Viola said. "I don't know how many times in the last two weeks I asked him 'Do you really think we have a shot in the Florida Derby?'"
The answer to that question was delivered loud and clear Saturday as the Kentucky Derby outlook took on a different look with Known Agenda moving up and Greatest Honour stumbling.
Since his loss to Known Agenda in the Aqueduct maiden race, Greatest Honour reeled off three straight wins at Gulfstream Park, including, most recently, the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes and Grade 2 Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes to become a top Triple Crown candidate.
Yet in his fourth trip around the Gulfstream Park oval in the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby, Greatest Honour lacked a strong late kick in rallying from 10th to finish third, 5 3/4 lengths behind Known Agenda.
"I thought we were OK on the turn there and he just didn't kick on the way I thought he would," said trainer Shug McGaughey. "I thought he ran fine. I think the winner ran a huge race. I'd have rather had a position a little closer and on the outside, but (jockey Jose Ortiz) said he handled the kickback fine so we'll pack up and make sure he's OK and move forward."
With 80 qualifying points after picking up 20 more Saturday, Courtlandt Farms' homebred son of Tapit has a spot awaiting him in the Kentucky Derby starting gate and McGaughey said he's likely to run his 3-year-old on the famed first Saturday in May.
"As of right now, yeah," McGaughey said about running in the Kentucky Derby. "We just have to see how he is. He belongs, as long as he's OK."
Nova Rags and Live Oak Plantation's Soup and Sandwich dueled for the lead in the early stages of Saturday's stakes, carving out fractions of :23.43 and :47.73. While Greatest Honour toiled at the back of the 11-horse field, jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. kept Known Agenda on hold along the inside while sixth after the opening half-mile.
As Soup and Sandwich maintained a slight lead, Known Agenda swung three wide on the final turn and surged to the front at the top of the stretch. As the Curlin colt edged away to 1 1/2-length lead at the eighth pole, he managed to increase his lead in the final furlong as a strong late charge from the rear never materialized.
Known Agenda crossed the wire in 1:49.45 in winning for the third time in six starts and pushing his earnings to $541,700.
"I really like the way he handled the distance. He was better. I like that. He's a classy horse. He's not too crazy. You can do anything with him. He's got a good mind," said Ortiz, who notched his record-breaking 138th win at Gulfstream's Championship Meet thanks to Known Agenda's victory.
With the addition of 100 points, Known Agenda has 102 and is third on the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard.
The 5-1 third choice in the wagering paid $12.80 to win.
Soup and Sandwich, a homebred son of Into Mischief making just his third career start for trainer Mark Casse, was a clear second, three lengths ahead of Greatest Honour.
With 40 qualifying points, Soup and Sandwich now stands 12th on the leaderboard for a field that will have no more than 20 starters.
"I was very pleased, especially if he ever learns what he's doing. (Jockey) Johnny (Velazquez) 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 said. "The thing that will help him is it was a little difficult to ship him down from Palm Meadows. It got him a little worked up. He'll run a lot better out of his stall at Churchill Downs."
With his 80 points, Greatest Honour is fifth in points.
Nova Rags was 1 ¼ lengths behind Greatest Honour in fourth and picked up 10 points to give him 14 and lift him to 23rd on the Leaderboard.
Recent maiden winner Collaborate was fifth as the 9-2 second choice and Spielberg, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert's first Florida Derby starter, was a non-threatening eighth at 7-1 odds.