By Noel Michaels
It’s Florida Derby Day, with a stakes-loaded, 14-race card set for Gulfstream Park on Saturday.
The 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby drew an 11-horse field. The favorite will be Greatest Honour, who is considered among the leading contender for the Run for the Roses. Can Greatest Honour deliver the goods? Or will the Florida Derby end in an upset?
Here’s a look at the Florida Derby field, followed by an analysis, and a few surprising picks.
Got better this season at Tampa for trainer Bill Mott, first with a victory in the 7-furlong Pasco and then with a runner-up finish in the Sam F. Davis (G3) behind stablemate Candy Man Rocket. The Sam Davis started to look a little bit better, however, when fifth-place finisher Known Agenda, also in the Florida Derby, won big in his next start. Whichever way you choose to interpret the Sam Davis, this horse did take a step forward in what was his first race around two turns, and further improvement could put this horse in the mix.
Took a quantum leap last time out off a pair of sub-par maiden efforts to begin his career to get his first win when stretched out to this 1 1/8-mile distance for trainer Ian Wilkes. That victory, by the way, makes this horse one of only two in the field to have already won at 1 1/8 miles. Beyond that, however, it will be tough to make a strong case for him based only on that maiden win, which came by a neck in an average time. It would take yet another quantum leap forward for him to raise his game and have a chance.
Won at first asking back at the Gulfstream Park West meet, but that victory for trainer Gustavo Delgado was at 6 ½ furlongs and the two route races since then have not been as good. Ambitiously placed in both the Holy Bull (G3) and the Fountain of Youth (G2) but was soundly beaten when fifth in both of those races. He will need to make up the difference here against favored Greatest Honour, who he lost to be 17 and 10 lengths in those races. Blinkers on helped only marginally last time. At this level, he looks like little more than a closer who doesn’t close.
Got the maiden win in a claiming race back at Churchill Downs, and both before and after that lone victory the losses have far outnumbered the wins for this horse who is 1-for-8 in the win column for trainer Dale Romans. Ran a solid second last time out in a 1-mile Gulfstream allowance optional claimer won by highly regarded Prevalence, who many consider to be a Kentucky Derby contender in his own right. As such, it would have been a lot more interesting to see Prevalence show up in this spot, instead of the horse who just lost to him. Southern Passage is possibly improving, but still has a long way to go to approach the level of the top horses in this field.
Known Agenda, trained by Todd Pletcher, has a win over Greatest Honour — at Aqueduct at 1 1/8 miles — when both horses were maidens back in November. Following well-bet but failed attempts in losses in the Remsen (G2) and the Sam Davis, this horse finally came to life last time out when first-time Lasix and added blinkers seemed to propel him to an 11-length victory at Gulfstream at 1 1/8 miles. Leading rider Irad Ortiz, Jr. was aboard, and returns to ride on Saturday. If you regard Greatest Honour as the horse to beat, you’ve got to consider Known Agenda to be his top challenger. On the negative side, however, note that the field he beat last time was not strong at all, plus the race will be run Lasix-free.
This horse has run solid but not spectacular in his last three outings since being switched to the turf for trainer Antonio Sano, first with a maiden win against Florida-bred turfers, then fourth- and fifth-place finishes in the Kitten’s Joy (G3) and the Palm Beach Stakes. Lone dirt outing so far in 6-furlong career debut was not good. Now the water gets deeper back on dirt and going 1 1/8 miles.
The deserving favorite after progressing toward this race all season for trainer Shug McGaughey. Greatest Honour has racked-up a 3-for-3 record at Gulfstream in three route races, including the Dec. 26 maiden win followed by smart-looking tallies in the Holy Bull and the Fountain of Youth at 1 1/16 miles, both times from disadvantageous outside posts. Post 7 is not the best, but it’s not so bad that it’ll get him beat if he indeed is the best horse. Reunites with regular rider Jose Ortiz, and Jose will be looking for decent pace to chase for a horse that rallies from far off the pace. Greatest Honour lost a head-to-head match-up with Known Agenda last fall, a race in which Greatest Honour was too far back behind a slow pace. If Greatest Honour loses, it will likely be a similar scenario that plays out, because there does not seem to be an overabundance of speed. Greatest Honour has continued to take care of business all season as the circuit’s top 3-year-old. Speed figures are good but not what you would call special. He’s good and he’s the legitimate favorite, but he doesn’t look unbeatable at a likely low price.
Winner of his two starts this year for trainer Mark Casse, including a 6 ½-furlong maiden race at Gulfstream, and then in his route debut last time out in Tampa in an optional claiming race. Could be any kind at this young stage of his career, and the fact that John Velazquez picks up the mount certainly give this horse the look of a serious contender. If there is a knock on the horse, it’s that he stretches out to 1 1/8 miles for the first time since his speed figure from his route win dropped 10 points from the Beyer speed figure he earned in his sprint career debut. Not sure that’s a positive sign. On the bright side, he has shown good tactical speed and that should come in handy on Saturday if these isn’t a strong pace. Gut feeling, mostly because of the pace and Velazquez aboard, says Soup and Sandwich will be a major player.
No dice in sloppy track, 6-furlong, well-bet career debut, but then came through in his second outing when stretched out to 1-mile to earn the maiden win by 12 lengths with a Beyer speed figure higher than any yet to be earned by Greatest Honour. Another terrific aspect of that 12-length win is that it was gate-to-wire as he set solid fractions and widened the lead through the stretch for trainer Saffie Joseph, Jr., who owns 47 wins at the Gulfstream meet. This will be Collaborate’s two-turn debut, and he should once again find himself on the lead as the best, and perhaps lone speed in the race with regular rider Tyler Gaffalione aboard. The early speed will come in handy because he will need to clear the field to save ground into the first turn and should be able to do so from an outside post, which has historically been a big disadvantage in Gulfstream 1 1/8-mile races. Should get the lead and has an opportunity to go a long way up front.
It’s difficult to find a top-rung race like this without representation from trainer Bob Baffert, and his starter will be Spielberg, who is perhaps only his third- or fourth-stringer on the road to the Kentucky Derby. Of course, it doesn’t mean that Spielberg is a slouch who should be taken lightly. On the contrary, he’s a Grade 2 winner [Los Alamitos Futurity in Dec.] who shares the best last-out Beyer speed figure in the field with Collaborate thanks to his second-place finish in the Southwest (G3). He was second leading Kentucky Derby contender, Essential Quality in that race. If there’s anything you can say against Spielberg, it is that he seems to suffer from inconsistency more than anything else, and you never know which version is going to show up. Good to see Javier Castellano picking up the mount, but the far outside post is not helpful, especially for a horse that lacks much of any early speed to gain position in the field. Spielberg is a likely to battle it out for some Derby qualifying points in the trifecta or superfecta, but probably not much more.
Tries for this spot coming off fourth-place and third-place finishes in the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth with a resume that bears a strong resemblance to that of Jirafales, but slightly better. What is not better, however, is the post position marooned out in the parking lot in gate 11, which is a strong disadvantage to overcome at Gulfstream at 1 1/8 miles. Will need to show big improvement to get a piece of this purse for trainer Sano, and unfortunately to do that he will need to close from far behind what figures to be a moderate pace while overcoming the worst position against a horse the likes of Greatest Honour, who has soundly beaten him twice in a row.
Favored #7 Greatest Honour is the horse to beat, but the race might offer a chance for handicappers to beat the chalk with an up-and-coming horse at a much better price. Greatest Honour must be used in all exotics, particularly exactas, and trifectas, but win bets should go in another direction. Much of the anti-Greatest Honour action will gravitate to Hall of Fame trainers Bill Mott and Bob Baffert with #1 Nova Rags and #10 Spielberg, respectively. Nova Rags has had his chances and has yet to earn a strong speed figure to date, while Spielberg is too inconsistent, has no early speed, and much overcome a bad post.
Instead, why not take the best contenders who will be on or close to the lead in this race likely to have a questionable pace? The runners who fit that description #5 Known Agenda, who has tactical speed, and the speedy duo of #9 Collaborate and #8 Soup and Sandwich, with a slight preference going to Collaborate, who is only exiting his maiden win but seems to have the better upside. Known Agenda was the last horse to have beaten Greatest Honour, and chances are he can do it again.
Bet on #5 Known Agenda to win, and concentrate exotics plays in the exactas and trifectas by using favorite #7 Greatest Honour in a three-horse exacta box along with #9 Collaborate. In the trifecta boxes, play a four-horse box by also adding in #8 Soup and Sandwich at a nice price.
Best of luck and enjoy the Florida Derby!
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.
He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.
In addition to contributing to US Racing, he is also an analyst on the Arlington Park broadcast team.