The First Saturday in April features two big Kentucky Derby prep races, both offering major qualifying points for entry into the big race at Churchill Downs on May 6.
The $1 Grade 1 Xpressbet Florida Derby, to be run at 1 1/8-miles at Gulfstream Park, has lured 11 sophomores looking to reap the 100-40-20-10 Derby qualifying points available to the top four finishers.
Fountain of Youth winner Gunnevera (9-5) is the class of the race, winning the local prep for the Florida Derby by nearly six lengths over his closest foe. He drew outside post No. 11, not the best place for the son of Dialed In to be due to the short run up to the clubhouse turn.
Trainer Antonio Sano is not concerned with the post based on his colt’s stalking running style. “No problem. If my horse had speed, it would be a problem, but horse will be in back, so no problem. From the outside post, [Jockey Javier] Castellano can make his way to the inside and then make his run.”
Eclipse winning jockey Castellano won the 2014 edition of the race for trainer Todd Pletcher with Constitution.
Pletcher has entered two horses, Always Dreaming (4-1) and Battalion Runner (3-1), seeking a record fourth training win in the Florida Derby. Battalion Runner is likely to scratch out of the race if Always Dreaming is a go.
Always Dreaming, a son of Bodemeister, will have Hall of Famer John Velazquez in the irons. He comes out of a win in a Gulfstream allowance race and steps up in class to face Gunnevera, the only graded stakes winner in the race.
The horse with the best chance to turn the tables on the favorite is Three Rules (8-1). The hometown favorite won his first five races before facing stiffer competition in his last three outings, starting with the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
He drew the gate just inside the favorite. His front-running speed could be impacted, but with Luis Saez aboard and the fact he is coming off a terrific workout on Mar. 25, are factors that should help him overcome the post position. This is one colt whose physical presence caught my eye in the mornings at Santa Anita before the Breeders’ Cup last November.
With 10 Derby points currently, Three Rules could use at least a third place finish to position himself for a gate in the Derby on the First Saturday in May. Reports out of Florida have said that the son of Gone Astray is likely pointing towards the Preakness, absent a win or close second in the Florida Derby.
Another colt that will likely be part of the Canadian Triple Crown trail later this summer is State of Honor. The Mark Casse trained son of To Honor and Serve finished second in the Tampa Bay Derby earlier in March.
The Ontario-bred has run well on the deeper Tampa track in his last two outings and comes to Gulfstream in search of valuable Derby points. He’ll likely be near or on the lead alongside Three Rules early in the race. As there is not as much speed in the race, the pace may favor the two speed horses, should Gunnevera get into traffic trouble as he did in the Holy Bull.
The start of Saturday’s Florida Derby is scheduled for 6:40 p.m. EDT, and is slated as Race 14 on the big Gulfstream card.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Gunnevera; 2 – Three Rules; 3 – State of Honor; 4 – Always Dreaming
The other major prep on Saturday afternoon will be held at the Fair Grounds. A field of nine 3-year-olds will contest the $1 million Grade 2 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby at 9-furlongs.
Girvin (8-5), winner of the Risen Star, is the morning line favorite and will likely be a short price when they head to the gate for Race 11 at 6:21 p.m. EDT on Saturday afternoon.
The Tale of Ekati colt worked out a perfect trip in the Risen Star and will have several horses lining up to knock him off who will be much better value at post time. Frankly, the race is devoid of many horses that could wear the Roses in Louisville based on their past performances.
Named after his owner’s hometown in Texas, the favorite has already qualified for the Derby and will be looking to maintain the form he showed in the Risen Star.
Trainer Joe Sharp is hoping that the lightly raced colt can keep the momentum on the road to Louisville. “We know that points wise we’re going to be okay to get into the Derby, but, you know, he needs to perform well and come out of it well, and make us feel like we should be in the Derby not just because we have enough points to enter up,” Sharp told the national racing media earlier in the week.
Unlike the Florida Derby that has provided four Derby winners in the last 11 years, the Louisiana Derby last put forth a Derby winner in Grindstone back in 1996. It’s produced two horses that have rounded out the Derby trifecta in Gun Runner (2016) and Revolutionary (2014) in the last four years. Other than those two, the race has seen a lot of futility in Louisville in recent years.
An intriguing challenger to Girvin is newcomer Patch (9-2) who drew the rail for Pletcher. The son of Union Rags come out of an impressive maiden win at Gulfstream and his trainer fires at a 28 percent clip coming off a maiden win.
Tyler Gaffalione gets the ride on Patch for the first time, as Castellano rode him in his debut and Velazquez in his maiden win. Pletcher has been on fire with his Derby trail horses and this one could follow the footsteps of One Liner and Malagacy at Oaklawn.
Guest Suite (4-1) winner of the Lecomte, the other local prep for the Louisiana Derby will try and rebound from a listless effort in the Risen Star. The Quality Road gelding will have Robby Albarado aboard and should enjoy a fast early pace projected to be set by Hotfoot (30-1) and Local Hero (7-2).
Trainer Neil Howard thinks his running style should benefit from a quick early pace. “He’s an off the pace kind of horse, but doesn’t get out too far back. I think it was a little further back maybe in the Risen Star, but that just happened,” Howard told the national racing media on Tuesday.
With 100-40-20-10 points available to the top four, Howard doesn’t think his horse has to win necessarily. “I don’t think you have to win, I don’t think every Derby winner has ever, you know, had to win his last race going; quite the contrary. But you have to see a very, very good race.”
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Patch; 2 – Guest Suite; 3 – Girvin; 4 – Hollywood Handsome
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.