This year marks the 68th running of the Florida Derby (GI), the Sunshine State’s last major prep for the Kentucky Derby (GI) in five weeks at Churchill Downs. The nine-furlong race offers a purse of $1 million and, more importantly, the race is one of seven offering Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifying points on a scale of 100-40-20-10 to the top four finishers, which guarantees the winner — and quite probably the runner-up — a spot in the starting gate under the Twin Spires in five weeks.
Eleven are expected to head postward in the day’s feature, which has been carded as the 14th race, with a post time of 6:30 p.m. ET. The weather in Hallandale is supposed to be warm and about 80 degrees under partly cloudy skies, so a fast track is probable all day.
Since it was first contested in 1952, the Florida Derby has consistently drawn what amounts to the best sophomores with Derby aspirations in training on the East Coast. Fifteen Florida Derby winners also won in Kentucky; additionally, a number of other Florida Derby winners went on to win the Preakness and/or Belmont Stakes.
Since 2000 alone, the Florida Derby has produced five Kentucky Derby winners — the most winners for any of the major prep races, despite the fact that it hasn’t had the most starters. Trainer Todd Pletcher has saddled five Florida Derby winners to lead all trainers (2007, Scat Daddy; 2014, Constitution; 2015, Materiality; 2017, Always Dreaming; and 2018, Audible) and Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez has ridden five to be the top jockey (2009, Quality Road; 2013, Orb; 2015, Materiality; 2017, Always Dreaming; and 2018, Audible), with three of those victories coming aboard Pletcher’s horses. The old Calumet Farm regime of Gene and Lucille Markey remain the stakes race’s top owners, having their devil’s red and blue silks worn by five runners.
Names of past Florida Derby winners even the casual racing fan would recognize include Nashua, Needles, Tim Tam, Carry Back, Northern Dancer, In Reality, Honest Pleasure, Alyday, Spectacular Bid, Swale, Snow Chief, Unbridled, Holy Bull, Thunder Gulch, Unbridled’s Song, Monarchos, Empire Maker, Barbaro and Nyquist.
It’s entirely too soon to tell if any of this year’s runners will be good enough to make their mark on racing history but these 11 colts are sure going to give it a try.
Hidden Scroll – This Juddmonte Farms homebred son of Hard Spun was spectacular breaking his maiden by 14 lengths on Pegasus World Cup Day in his debut in January, then came back to finish fourth — after a bad break in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII) — a month ago. He’s the favorite here despite his last and picks up Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano, who was aboard Constitution in 2014. Trainer Bill Mott seeks his first Florida Derby win in his Hall of Fame career.
Current – Very expensive ($725,000) son of Curlin returns to the main track after a third in a stakes last out. His only dirt start in his entire six-race career was a sloppy seventh in last year’s Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (GII), but, in fairness, he did have some trouble at the break and lost all chance early. He has some impressive connections in owners Starlight Racing and Bob LaPenta (who won this race in 2010 with Ice Box and 2011 with Dialed In), as well as Pletcher at the helm. Manny Franco gets a shot after regular rider Javier Castellano chose the favorite.
Harvey Wallbanger – Holy Bull Stakes (GII) winner hasn’t raced since that initial black-type appearance two months ago, but that’s not to say he hasn’t been training well over the Gulfstream main track. Trainer Kenny McPeek saddled Harlan’s Holiday to victory to a Florida Derby win in 2002 and sends this $50,000 son of Congrats out here on a two-race win streak. Regular jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. returns.
Bourbon War – Trainer Mark Hennig and jockey Jose Ortiz are both winless in the Florida Derby, but team up with this $410,000 son of Tapit, who was a fast-closing second in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII) last out. He has a win over this track in an allowance race and, while he hasn’t won at this nine furlongs, he’s more than bred for it. Considering he ran out of ground last time, the extra sixteenth may make all the difference for this late closer.
Everfast – was a strong second in the Holy Bull Stakes at nearly 130-1 before tossing in a complete clunker to finish a dull eighth in the Fountain of Youth last out. He hasn’t done a ton since breaking his maiden at first asking, but trainer Dale Romans and the new Calumet Farm roll the dice here with this $47,000 son of Take Charge Indy. Chris Landeros returns to ride.
Hard Belle – I’m not entirely sure why this horse, which hasn’t done a thing in twelve starts since breaking its maiden in October, was entered in this race. He’s hopelessly overmatched.
Maximum Security – Riding a three-race win skein, this Gary and Mary West homebred son of Breeders’ Cup winner New Year’s Day makes his stakes debut. He won his last, a seven-furlong allowance race, by a whopping 18 lengths and makes a logical step into stakes company. Trainer Jason Servis and jockey Luis Saez both seek an initial Florida Derby win.
Bodexpress – This maiden takes a shot, but is probably better off stepping down in class off of maiden special weight company instead of jumping into Grade 1 company.
Code of Honor – The Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII) winner returns off that nice off-the-pace score and is not the morning-line favorite. Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey won this race and then the Derby with Orb in 2013 and sends out this son of Noble Mission with a strong shot to repeat. Former British Ambasador and Lane’s End Farm owner Will Farish bred this colt and Hall of Famer John Velazquez rides. He’s not the favorite, but may be by post time.
Union’s Destiny – This stakes-placed son of Union Rags seemed horribly overmatched in the Fountain of Youth last time, but didn’t disgrace himself and finished sixth, beaten just a half-dozen lengths. That’s not to say he’ll improve enough to be effective here, but he may be good enough for a smaller share. Jockey Leonel Reyes hasn’t ridden in a Florida Derby yet.
Garter and Tie – This Smooth Air Stakes winner was third in the Mucho Macho man (ahead of Code of Honor) but was a non-factor when sixth in the Holy Bull Stakes in his last. Trainer Ralph Nicks hasn’t won a Florida Derby, nor has jockey Jeffrey Sanchez, but both will give it a whirl on this longshot Jacks or Better Farm homebred by Brooks n’ Down.