Of all of the prep races on the Kentucky Derby trail, the Florida Derby is one that deserves particular attention.
The past 67 editions of the race have produced 44 starters with subsequent victories in one of the three Triple Crown races. Twenty-four have worn the roses at Churchill Downs, 19 have gone on to win the Preakness, and 16 have donned the carnations at the Belmont Stakes.
That’s pretty lofty status for the signature race of the Gulfstream Park Championship meet, apologies to the Pegasus World Cup and its multimillion-dollar purse.
This year’s Grade 1 Xpressbet Florida Derby has plenty of competition heading into the gate, with three of the top four finishers from the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth and the Grade 2 Holy Bull winner, Harvey Wallbanger(15-1). Add a flashy newcomer who won his last race by more than 18 lengths and we have ourselves a horse race.
The top four finishers will earn 100-40-20-10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points in Saturday afternoon’s feature race scheduled to go to post at about 6:36 p.m. ET. The race can be seen on NBC Sports Network in a one-hour broadcast beginning at 6 p.m.
The morning line favorite, Hidden Scroll (5-2), was the fourth-place finisher in the Fountain of Youth, but his dominant performance on the Pegasus undercard in late January still is reverberating from coast to coast.
Hooked in a speed duel with Gladiator King in the Fountain of Youth, the son of Hard Spun had nothing left in the tank, which left it to the closers, Code of Honor (3-1) and Bourbon War (7-2), to pick up the pieces. Trainer Bill Mott has made a jockey change from Joel Rosario to Hall of Famer Javier Castellano, and drew the rail for the 1 1/8-mile $1 million race.
Juddmonte Farms Racing Manager Garrett O’Rourke wouldn’t point at the last race as the reason for the change, but noted that Rosario will likely ride the Juvenile champion Game Winner on Derby day for Bob Baffert.
“Bill thought it was the time to go and make the move and make it easy and allow the probability of having the same jockey for the prep and the big day if we were so lucky to be able to move on after Saturday,” O'Rourke said on a teleconference with reporters Tuesday.
Fountain of Youth winner Code of Honor was passed over by bettors in that last race and trainer Shug McGaughey, who trained Florida and Kentucky Derby winner Orb in 2015, expects that he is going to be overlooked again.
“Hidden Scroll is obviously a talented horse,” McGaughey said on the call. “But he couldn’t carry his speed, going to a mile and a sixteenth in the Fountain of Youth. I know he went very fast over a fast racetrack, but you know, speed carries over this track. I thought we kind of caught him pretty easy the other day, and I think the mile and an eighth is going to help us even more" in the Florida Derby.
Code of Honor has the pedigree to go a distance of ground being by Noble Mission out of a Dixie Union mare. His grand sire Galileo has produced many long distance winners. Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez is scheduled to ride.
The newcomer to the scene is Maximum Security (9-2), a horse that ran in a $16,000 maiden claimer to kick off his career for trainer Jason Servis, who is winning at a whopping 45 percent rate at the Gulfstream meet. He locked down his last race by multiple lengths, but jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. decided to climb aboard Fountain of Youth runner-up Bourbon War (7-2). Luis Saez picked up the mount on the son of former Juvenile champion New Year’s Day.
Servis laid out his perfect Florida Derby scenario for the Gulfstream media team at the post position draw Wednesday.
“I’d like to see two horses head-and-head for the lead and him tucked in laying third about four lengths off of them. I’ll leave it to Luis Saez. He’s a great rider,” Servis said. "He’s a young horse that is probably going to lay it all out just because he’s young enough where he hasn’t really learned just to go through the motions.”
The horse that should be a square price and off the radar is Bourbon War. Ortiz had the confidence to go with him after his late closing effort in the Fountain of Youth and the added distance should benefit the Tapit colt. With Hidden Scroll and Maximum Security possibly dueling it out, look for Bourbon War to catch Code of Honor this time.
Post Time Outlook (Florida Derby): 1 –Bourbon War, 2 –Hidden Scroll 3 –Code of Honor, 4 –Maximum Security
On Saturday morning, as part of the Dubai World Cup card, is the Group 2 UAE Derby, with another 170 Derby points at stake.
Post time for the 1-3/16 mile UAE Derby is 10:05 a.m. ET from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates at Meydan Racecourse as Race 5. A full field of 14 is entered in the $2.5 million race.
Divine Image (2-1) will try to become the first filly to run in the Kentucky Derby since 2010, should she win the UAE Derby. She won the local prep at Meydan against the boys and will look to duplicate that effort on Dubai World Cup night.
Walking Thunder (5-1) looks like the main threat to the filly, with world-class jockey Frankie Dettori in the irons on the Violence colt. He finished second in his last effort in the Group 3 UAE 2000 Guineas over the Meydan course.
Peter Miller looks like he has the best U.S. hope in the race with Gray Magician (15-1), who shipped overseas. Joel Rosario will ride the son of Graydar ,who should love the added distance.
If speed is holding like last year’s World Cup night, Stubbins (15-1) is another possible long shot play because of his early speed, coming off a non-graded stake win at Santa Anita.
Post Time Outlook (UAE Derby): 1 –Walking Thunder, 2 –Divine Image, 3 –Gray Magician, 4 – Stubbins
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and tweets @EquiSpace.