By Richard Rosenblatt
Trainer Todd Pletcher will be back in the Kentucky Derby.
Was there ever any doubt?
Needing some of his 3-year-olds to come through on a big Saturday of Derby points qualifiers, Pletcher’s horses responded in a huge way.
Known Agenda ($12.80 for a $2 bet) made his move at the top of the stretch and pulled away from Soup and Sandwich to win the $750,000 Florida Derby (G1) by 2 ¾ lengths, giving Pletcher his sixth victory in this key Derby prep.
Odds-on favorite Greatest Honour, the Holy Bull (G3) and Fountain of Youth (G3) winner, was boxed in a bit along the rail, and his late move in the stretch was only good enough for third place in the field of 11.
Spielberg, sent East by trainer Bob Baffert, was bumped at the start and never contended, finishing eighth.
A few minutes earlier, at Turfway Park, Wesley Ward-trained Like the King won the $250,000 Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) to give him a spot in the Derby, with Pletcher’s Sainthood running second and likely picking up enough points to also Run for the Roses.
Each race offered Derby points of 100-40-20-10 to the first four finishers.
Known Agenda, who defeated Greatest Honour at Aqueduct back in November, came into the Florida Derby with 2 qualifying points from a third place in the Remsen. Now he has 102 points, good for third on the leaderboard. Sainthood came into the Jeff Ruby with 0 points, and now has 40 for 13th on the leaderboard.
The Kentucky Derby on May 1 is limited to 20 starters based on qualifying points.
Known Agenda settled into fifth place along the rail mid around the first turn, and stayed there, with Greatest Honour behind him, before angling out a bit to challenge Soup and Sandwich and Nova Rags for the lead.
He was ahead in front turning for home and drew away for the victory over Soup and Sandwich, with Greatest Honour third and Nova Rags fourth.
Pletcher was delighted with the effort.
“He ran terrific,’’ Pletcher said. “I was so happy to see him progressing up the backside because I wasn’t sure he’d be confident being inside like that, but he kept moving an improving his position He ran great.”
Irad Ortiz, Jr. was aboard Known Agenda, having picked up the mount in the colt’s previous race – an 11-length win in an allowance optional claimer – at Gulfstream on Feb. 26. John Velazquez rode him previously.
“I have to give Johnny a lot of credit. [After the Sam F. Davis] he said we need to put blinkers on this horse,’’ Pletcher said, who did that for the Feb. 26 race. “Johnny had commitments out of town at that time, so we got Irad. The blinkers made a big difference. It gave him a lot more confidence. It was turning point for the horse.”
And now it’s on to Kentucky for a chance to win what would be his third Derby – Pletcher has run at least one horse in the Derby 20 of the past 21 years. He won it with Super Saver in 2010 and Always Dreaming in 2017. He leads all trainers in Derbt starters with 55.
Winning time for the 1 1/8 miles was 1:49.45. Known Agenda improved his record to 6-3-1-1 and his bankroll to $541,700 for owner Vinny Viola.
“The instructions were to try and stay as close as I can without going too crazy and start working my way out and put the horse in the clear outside,’’ Ortiz said. “I saw a couple horses outside of me and I had to take a hold to go around, and I said it was too much. So, I just followed the flow of the race. I had to go to the rail, and it worked out great. When I took him out, he started rolling.”
It wasn’t Greatest Honour’s best day, but trainer Shug McGaughey expects his colt to move on to the Derby.
“I thought we were OK on the turn there and he just didn’t kick on the way I thought he would,’’ McGaughey said. “I thought he ran fine. I think the winner ran a huge race. But he [jockey Jose Ortiz] said he handled the kickback fine, so we’ll pack up and make sure he’s OK and move forward.”
The Florida Derby has produced more Kentucky Derby winners than any other prep , with 15 of them winning both. The last to sweep? Always Dreaming, trained by Pletcher and owned by Viola.
As for the Derby distance of 1 ¼ miles, Pletcher said: “I think this horse gets us a mile-and-a-half. He’s always given us that impression. The further he goes the better he gets.”
Collaborate was fifth, followed by Southern Passage, Papetu, Spielberg, Quantum Leap, Jirafales, and Sigiloso.
$250,000 Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3)
Like the King ($16) made a final surge in deep stretch and won the 50th edition of the Jeff Ruby for trainer Wesley Ward.
The one-length victory over Sainthood put Like the King at No. 2 on the Derby points leaderboard with 104, with four points coming from a second place in the John Battaglia, also at Turfway on the synthetic Tapeta surface.
Hockey Dad was third, followed by Hard Rye Guy, Gretzky the Great, Moonlite Strike, Dyn O Mite, Awesome Gerry, King’s Ovation, Smiley Sobotka, and Tarantino, the 5-2 favorite who bobbled at the start and never contended.
Drayden van Dyke was aboard for the win. There was an inquiry by Sainthood jockey Gerardo Corrales regarding a slight bumping incident at the top of the stretch, but it was disallowed by the stewards.
Winning time for the 1 1/8 miles was 1:50.22.
“He’s always showed an affinity for grass and that’s why we kept him on the Tapeta surface this winter with this race in mind,’’ Ward said. “I’m glad this came through and worked out with Gary [Stevens]. Now that he became an agent for Drayden, it’s special to partner to win this race. Growing up I always idolized Gary and it was a good combination to get us to this win today.”
$750,000 UAE Derby (G2)
Rebel’s Romance ($26.10) rallied wide from midpack for William Buick and drew off to take the UAE Derby by five lengths over pacesetting favorite Panadol. Englishman Charles Appleby trains the gelding, bred in Ireland and owned by Godolphin. The time for 1 3/16 miles on a fast track was 1:56.25.
The longshot improved his career record to 4-for-5 as he rebounded from a fourth-place finish last month in the mile Saudi Derby.
Rebel Romance earned 100 qualifying points for the Derby, with 40 going to Panadol and 20 to third-place New Treasure. No UAE Derby runner has won the Run for the Roses, with its first winner, China Visit (2000), posting the best finish (sixth) in 2000. Ten skipped the Derby, and three finished last.
In other races at Gulfstream Park:
$200,000 Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2)
Count trainer Ken McPeek back in the Kentucky Oaks (G1), this time with Crazy Beautiful, who took charge in the stretch and won this race by 2 ¼ lengths.
Last year, it was Swiss Skydiver who used a victory in the Gulfstream Park Oaks as a steppingstone to a 3-year-old filly championship.
Sent off as the 2-1 second-choice, Crazy Beautiful ($6) covered the 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.41 under jockey Jose Ortiz. Millefeuille was second, Competitive Speed third and favorite Con Lima.
Oaks qualifying points of 100-40-20-10 were awarded to the first four finishers.
$200,000 Pan American (G2)
Churn N Burn made his first stakes appearance a winning one, taking the lead early and never giving it up to win by 2 ½ lengths.
The 4-year-old gelding, in his 10th career start, was sent off at 11-2 and returned $13. Trained by Ian Wilkes and ridden by Julien Leparoux, Churn N Burn covered the 1 1/2 miles in 2:23.63 over a firm turf.
Moon over Miami got up for second, with 8-5 favorite Cross Border third, and Sadler’s Joy was fourth.
“I was actually glad no one went with him,’’ Wilkes said, adding that a race at Keeneland could be next. “He was on his own, so that was good. I was very happy.”
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.