Step up or step aside on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
With five weeks remaining before the May 4 Derby at Churchill Downs, the race for qualifying points features an intriguing pair of preps: the $1 million Florida Derby (GI) at Gulfstream Park and the $2.5 million UAE Derby (GII) at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai.
Florida Derby (G1). $1,000,000 purse. 1 1/8 miles on dirt.
|#||NAME (MORNING LINE ODDS)|
|1||HIDDEN SCROLL (5-2)|
|3||HARVEY WALLBANGER (15-1)|
|4||BOURBON WAR (7-2)|
|6||HARD BELLE (50-1)|
|7||MAXIMUM SECURITY (9-2)|
|9||CODE OF HONOR (3-1)|
|10||UNION’S DESTINY (30-1)|
|11||GARTER AND TIE (15-1)|
Each race awards Derby points of 100-40-20-10 for the top four finishers, yet they are unique in their own way. The Florida Derby’s top two finishers are all but set to Run for the Roses, with other Derby entrants likely, depending on the order of finish; in the UAE Derby, it’s a long shot that any horse that qualifies will even show up to contest America’s greatest race.
With the suspense building as to who’s in and who’s out, Code of Honor has it made. The William S. Farish colt has already qualified by virtue of his victory in the Fountain of Youth (GII) at Gulfstream Park on March 2. Code of Honor ranks third on the Derby leaderboard with 54 points.
With John Velazquez aboard, Code of Honor is the second betting choice in the field of 11 on Saturday, with Hidden Scroll the morning-line favorite, even though he wound up fourth in the Fountain of Youth.
Code of Honor began his 3-year-old campaign with a clunker by finishing fourth as the 4-5 favorite in the Mucho Macho Man on Jan. 5. Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey says he toughened up the colt’s training regimen since — and the results have him a win away from becoming one of the Derby favorites. In 2013, Orb swept the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby before giving McGaughey his first Derby victory.
“With Orb, with two wins down here [in Florida], I was very, very confident in the way he trained afterward that he was going to run a good race in the Derby,” said McGaughey. “If we were to run well here on Saturday, and he were to come out good and train well, I would go to Louisville thinking that he should run well.”
It won’t be easy. Juddmonte Farm’s Hidden Scroll looks to prove he’s Derby worthy by rebounding from the Fountain of Youth in what will be just his third career start.
After a 14-length romp in his career debut, HIdden Scroll had a rough start in the Fountain of Youth, got caught up in a pressured pace, but still wound up three lengths behind the winner.
Javier Castellano is the new rider for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, who says Hidden Scroll “is fine behind horses; he’s fine on the lead if the pace is such that he needs to be on the lead.
“That’s the rider’s decision. They have to make that choice when they leave the starting gate.’’
Another horse to watch is Bourbon War (18th, 21 points), who likes to come from behind, as he showed in running a close second to Code of Honor after getting caught up in traffic on the turn for home. Bourbon War won a Jan. 18 optional claimer by coming from far back. Irad Ortiz Jr. has the call.
“He’s putting a lot more into his gallops,’’ trainer Mark Hennig said. “He’s eating tremendously right now. He’s a horse that needed to fill out and grow up as the spring comes on and he’s doing that. Hopefully, that keeps going as we transition to the next town and he does as well as he’s done here.”
The Florida Derby has a rich history of Triple Crown race winners. Since 1980, 12 winners of the Florida Derby have gone on capture the Kentucky Derby, the most recent being Always Dreaming in 2017.
By contrast, the UAE Derby will be run for the 19th time. Of the 10 UAE Derby winners who went on to the Kentucky Derby, the best finish was a sixth-place showing by China Visit in 2000. Last year’s UAE Derby winner, Mendelssohn, was 20th.
|#||NAME (MORNING LINE ODDS)|
|1||WALKING THUNDER (5-1)|
|3||GOLDEN JAGUAR (15-1)|
|4||PLUS QUE PARFAIT (15-1)|
|5||DERMA LOUVRE (12-1)|
|6||DIVINE IMAGE (2-1)|
|8||GRAY MAGICIAN (15-1)|
|10||AL HAYETTE (50-1)|
|11||VAN BEETHOVEN (10-1)|
|13||SWIFT ROSE (30-1)|
A field of 14 is entered, with Godolphin’s impressive filly Divine Image out to beat the boys and listed as the 2-1 early favorite. Trained by Charlie Appleby, the UAE Oaks winner, a daughter of Scat Daddy, has already defeated the boys, winning the Al Bastakiya by 7 ¼ lengths three weeks ago. A win, and it’s possible this filly could wind up in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) on May 3.
Other contenders include Van Beethoven, a Triple Crown nominee trained by Aidan O’Brien, Sheikh Hamdan’s Jabath, a winner of four in a row in England, and Walking Thunder, one of three entries from the newly-formed Phoenix Ladies Syndicate, which has enjoyed rousing success in the past year.
Trained by Ahmad bin Harmash, Walking Thunder won three straight before a runner-up finish in the UAE 2000 Guineas (GIII) raised some questions. But the colt drew the rail and picked up star rider Frankie Dettori. A win on Saturday could likely send Walking Thunder to Kentucky, with a shot at the Derby very possible.
“I think the draw came up perfectly for us,’’ said Pamela Cordina, the principle of Phoenix Ladies said. “I know the last race some people questioned his performance, but we went back and checked with the vets and he’s fine. We’re glad we have Frankie on him so he can get out quickly.”
Three other fillies join Divine Image in the field: UAE Oaks second- and third-place finishers Swift Rose and Razeena, and Al Hayette, fifth in the Oaks and fourth in the Al Bastakiya. Three U.S. shippers are in the field, too: Plus Que Parfait, Gray Magician and Stubbins.
When the dust settles on Saturday evening, the field for the Derby will become clearer. And by next weekend — after the Wood Memorial (GII), Santa Anita Derby (G1) and Blue Grass (GII) — much of the field will likely be determined.