by Tim Holland
Scott Shapiro reviewed Kentucky Derby contenders from Southern California and I will take focus upon Florida-based horses who competed at either Gulfstream Park or Tampa Bay Downs this winter/spring, with an eye toward their chances in the first leg of the Triple Crown on Saturday.
The Florida Derby (G1) has historically proved a valuable stepping stone to success in the Run for the Roses with 10 winners in the last 50 years proving best on the first Saturday in May.
In 2005, Gulfstream Park moved the date of the Florida Derby from mid-March to early-April and since that change 10 Florida Derby winners made their next outing in the Kentucky Derby, with Barbaro (2006), Big Brown (2008), Orb (2013) and Nyquist (2016) all victorious.
This statistic of four Kentucky Derby victors from the last 10 Florida Derby winners appears to bode well for this year’s conqueror, ALWAYS DREAMING, who made his stakes debut a winning one in the April 1st race. Rallying from just off the pace the colt swept past the leaders and drew off impressively to win by five lengths.
Although he is by 2012 Kentucky Derby runner-up Bodemeister, stamina doubts arise being out of a mare by In Excess (Ire) and trainer Todd Pletcher’s last two Florida Derby winners to contest the Kentucky Derby, Materiality (2015) and Scat Daddy (2007) both failed at Churchill. Always Dreaming does have tactical speed and can be in good early position, but he may find this distance a touch too far.
While winners of the Florida Derby have had a good record next out at Churchill, none of the last 12 second-place finishers at Gulfstream have found success in the Kentucky Derby. The last Derby winner to finish second in the Florida Derby was back in 1991 when Strike the Gold took the Roses.
This year’s runner-up, STATE OF HONOR has proved consistent all year finishing second in both starts at Gulfstream and recording a pair of in-the-money finishes at Tampa in between. Son of 2011 Florida Derby third place finisher To Honor and Serve has had trouble settling early in his races but stayed on well after being forwardly placed in his latest outing. With a good draw colt can be forwardly placed early and could possibly hang on for a minor award.
GUNNEVERA finished well to be third in the Florida Derby but runners filling this spot have an even worse record at Churchill. Indeed, one has to be go all the way back to Foolish Pleasure in 1975 to find a Kentucky Derby winner that finished third in the Gulfstream event. A son of 2011 Florida Derby winner Dialed In, Gunnevera is out of a mare by 1990 Florida and Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled and closed from far off the pace to win the Fountain of Youth (G2) two back. Chestnut can be closing late but does not appear to have enough tactical speed to give him a better chance than a small share on the first Saturday in May.
Similar to State of Honor, PRACTICAL JOKE has been consistent without winning this year. He was out-finished by Gunnevera after making a move from off the pace when second in the Fountain of Youth in his seasonal bow and son of Into Mischief filled the same spot in the Blue Grass (G2) after failing to pass front-running winner Irap when in perfect striking position. Winner of two Grade 1s before a third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), Practical Joke may be primed for a top effort making his third start of the year at Churchill for trainer Chad Brown. Colt has a pedigree to suit the distance and can be a factor from off the pace on the first Saturday in May.
Classic Empire and Irish War Cry both redeemed themselves in their next outings after recording sub-par efforts in Florida this year.
Last year’s champion two-year-old male, CLASSIC EMPIRE was reluctant to enter the gate and was found to have a minor foot issue after failing to deliver a late kick when posting a disappointing third in the Holy Bull Stakes (G1) in early February. Subsequently freshened for over nine weeks, Pioneerof the Nile colt rebounded impressively in the Arkansas Derby (G1), rallying from off the pace to prove best.
With just two outings this year, Classic Empire may appear light on seasoning but with five wins, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and two at Churchill, he has more overall victories on his resume than any other Kentucky Derby runner this year.
Classic Empire has shown a questionable temperament which could be an issue with the usual pre-race rigmarole he will be subjected to at Churchill but with racing luck, the classy colt has the right running style to be a top three contender.
IRISH WAR CRY’S lone loss in five starts came when giving way badly after chasing the early leader in the Fountain of Youth, but he led from the start to easily beat Gunnevera and Classic Empire in the Holy Bull in his previous outing. Son of third place Kentucky Derby finisher Curlin rallied from just off the pace to win the Wood (G2) in his next outing, proving for the second time in his career that he can rate successfully. Trainer Motion won the Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom in 2011 and Irish War Cry can be in a good early position and a contender for a share.
PATCH will be the most lightly raced entrant in this year’s Derby having just three lifetime starts. The son of Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags rallied from off the pace to break his maiden over a mile at Gulfstream in his second start in February and followed that with a solid second place finish in the nine-furlong Louisiana Derby (G2) in early-April. The Pletcher trainee should have no trouble with this distance being out of a mare by A P Indy but his lack of seasoning (unraced at age 2) is a big concern.
Tampa Bay Downs
Street Sense (2007) and Super Saver (2010) are the only Kentucky Derby winners to have contested the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) and this year’s top two finishers, Tapwrit and State of Honor, will be in the gate on Saturday. TAPWRIT was very impressive when rallying from off the pace before drawing off to win by 4 ½ lengths but was a huge disappointment when making little impact in the Blue Grass in his latest. The son of Tapit was perhaps was unable to overcome the speed favoring surface at Keeneland that day but the dull performance is still hard to excuse.
MCCRAKEN missed a scheduled start in the Tampa Bay Derby with a minor ankle issue but defeated the top two finishers from that event when closing from off the pace to win February’s Sam Davis Stakes (G2) at Tampa in his first outing of the year. State of Honor returned to solidify the Tampa form with a good second in the Florida Derby while McCraken was laid off for two months before finishing a one-paced third in the Blue Grass last month, a loss may be excused partly through the track being favorable to speed as well as the likelihood that the colt needed the outing. It is important to note that trainer Ian Wilkes was involved with previous Kentucky Derby winners Unbridled and Street Sense who both lost their final prep at Keeneland.
Being by Ghostzapper and out of a stakes-placed mare by Seeking the Gold, McCraken should have no problem with the 10-furlong Derby distance and is unbeaten in three previous outings at Churchill Downs. McCracken has been working in fine style at Churchill and appears to have the best chance of winning the Kentucky Derby from this year’s Florida contingent.
Tim Holland does the Daily Selections at Brisnet.com for Gulfstream Park and other tracks
Remember to visit the TwinSpires page for work videos and here is the link to free Brisnet.com Ultimate Past Performances for the Kentucky Derby (ranked in points order)