May 28, 2020

Five points to ponder: Florida Derby

Independence Hall rolled to a four-length win in the Jerome at Aqueduct (c) Chelsea Durand/Coglianese Photography

With news of Santa Anita’s coronavirus-forced cancellation, Saturday’s $750,000 Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park looks like it might be the last Kentucky Derby (G1) scoring race for a while.

The Santa Anita Derby (G1) has joined the Wood Memorial (G2) as preps on hold as their host tracks have suspended racing, and the Blue Grass (G2) is on hiatus following the scrapping of Keeneland’s spring meet. At this writing, the next points race with a set date is the Arkansas Derby (G1) at Oaklawn Park, already rescheduled for May 2 in light of the dramatically revised calendar.

The Kentucky Derby’s shift to September 5 means that more scoring races will be added to the schedule. In the meantime, the Florida Derby’s boatload of 170 points (on the 100-40-20-10 scale) will shake up the leaderboard.

Here are my five points to ponder for a Florida Derby in unique circumstances:

1. Tiz the Law likely still holds the edge over Ete Indien.

Aside from the fact that Tiz the Law was emphatic in his defeat of Ete Indien in the Holy Bull (G3), there are reasons to suspect that the form will be upheld in the Florida Derby. First, Tiz the Law did not have an easy trip in the Holy Bull, with regular rider Manny Franco having to tap on the brakes in the very inside spot he hoped to avoid. Tiz the Law shrugged off the backstretch hiccup and readily asserted. His ability to cope with trouble that day is a definite plus.

A counterpoint to this view would be if Tiz the Law regresses from the Holy Bull, where he posted a lofty 108 Brisnet Speed rating. The one nugget on this score is that he had a foot bruise in mid-February – reportedly minor – and he hasn’t missed a beat on the worktab since resuming March 2. Indeed, the Barclay Tagg pupil fired a 5-furlong bullet on March 8. Considering that he’s had ample time ahead of his Florida Derby target, I’d rather not overanalyze a temporary blip from a month ago.

2. Ete Indien did not have to improve to win the Fountain of Youth.

The other counterpoint would be if Ete Indien had improved in the interim. While that’s always possible with developing 3-year-olds, his conquest of the Fountain of Youth (G2) doesn’t prove the hypothesis. He did well to grab the lead from post 10 and cut across, but the rest of the race unfolded in similar fashion to the Holy Bull. The only difference was that Tiz the Law wasn’t there to outkick him late.

The parity of Ete Indien’s efforts is reflected in his Brisnet Speed ratings (104 in the Holy Bull versus 103 in the Fountain of Youth), and his identical 99 Late Pace figure. Granted, he was cantering as much the best, and his fans can argue more was in hand if needed. Still, the overall impression is that Ete Indien duplicated his Holy Bull. Note that Ete Indien again finds himself drawn outside in post 12 Saturday, and with speed to his inside, he arguably has a trickier task to clear them this time.

3. Independence Hall is treating this as his Kentucky Derby.

The dangerous rival with speed, if he wants to use it early, is Independence Hall.

It goes without saying that all connections want to win the Florida Derby, but the perspective of owner intent, in this scrambled Kentucky Derby picture, could be significant. Aron Wellman of co-owner Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners told Gulfstream publicity in no uncertain terms that this is the major objective for Independence Hall, since who knows what will happen over the summer let alone the first Saturday in September:

“With the shift in the schedule and the Kentucky Derby pushed back four months, we’re really viewing this as our Kentucky Derby right now. It’s a prestigious Grade 1 that’s very meaningful to his stallion potential.”

Independence Hall lost his unbeaten aura in the Sam F. Davis (G3), but as the runner-up, he fared light years best of anyone in proximity to the pace meltdown at Tampa Bay Downs. Wellman revealed that the beaten 3-5 favorite also threw a shoe and lost his tongue tie. Even so, Independence Hall might have overcome the multiple adverse factors on a speed-friendlier surface. I’ve previously critiqued his being a little too on the muscle, but that early aggressiveness can be rewarded at Gulfstream.

4. Gouverneur Morris offers value at 8-1 on the morning line.

Gouverneur Morris is another once-beaten contender who was partly a victim of circumstances in his lone loss. The smashing Saratoga debut winner was stuck in post 10 in his first stakes and two-turn attempt in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1), and according to Trakus, he negotiated 39 feet more than the impressive Maxfield. Without the disadvantage of ground loss over Keeneland’s entire circuit, Gouverneur Morris had the right to finish a closer second. As it was, he deserves credit for rebuffing Enforceable, and they were well clear of fourth Ajaaweed (expected to scratch Saturday according to Daily Racing Form).

Not seen again until an allowance at Tampa – a significant placement for trainer Todd Pletcher’s modus operandi – Gouverneur Morris stalked and ultimately dispatched Untitled. The time for a mile and 40 yards was only .02 off the track record, and the form was backed up when Untitled went on to place second to Mischevious Alex in the Gotham (G3). Between his juvenile record, most encouraging comeback, and likely optimal trip just off the leaders, Gouverneur Morris has upset potential at 8-1.

5. Constitution has a legitimate chance of hitting the trifecta.

The Florida Derby is officially sponsored by Hall of Famer Curlin, but hot WinStar stallion Constitution is getting all the earned media with his formidable trio of first-crop sons.

Himself the 2014 Florida Derby hero, Constitution could be emulated by 6-5 favorite Tiz the Law, the 9-2 Independence Hall, or Gouverneur Morris. The latter two are both out of mares by Florida Derby winners as well – Unbridled’s Song (1996) in the case of Gouverneur Morris and Cape Town (1998) for Independence Hall.