Who knows how much longer that racing will hang on against the coronavirus?
As the sport is shutting down little by little, track by track, order by order and positive test by positive test, the Florida Derby goes forward Saturday.
“I think it’s critical to the economy of racing that we continue racing as long as it’s safe for all the participants,” trainer Todd Pletcher told reporters on a conference call this week.
Although the purse has been reduced by 25 percent, the crowd by 100 percent and the government pressure to shut down by 1,000 percent, the climax to south Florida’s winter racing season is all dressed up and ready to go. Twelve horses plus an also-eligible are entered into the now-$750,000 stakes race that is still a Grade 1 and will still award 100 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the winner.
But there are plenty of signs this weekend may be the last for a while in south Florida. The Stronach Group denied reports that it would go to court to keep Gulfstream Park open in the face of Broward County’s order this week to shut down non-essential business. Even so, the track announced a mandatory payout on its Pick 6 on Saturday, suggesting that it may call off Sunday’s card – which is already drawn – and suspend the spring-summer meet that is supposed to start next Friday.
“That is a real worry because we’ve seen it happen in multiple other jurisdictions,” trainer Mike Trombetta said. “I can’t tell how many times in the course of the day I turn on the television or check Twitter or whatever.”
Back on the track, Trombetta and Pletcher have three of the horses in the Florida Derby. But it is 82-year-old Barclay Tagg who trains the favorite. Tiz The Law (6-5) not only has the shortest price on the morning line, but at 5-1 he has the second-shortest odds in the William Hill Nevada futures for the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby. (Bob Baffert’s two-time graded-stakes winner Authentic is the 9-2 favorite.)
Drawn into post 7 for Saturday’s 1⅛-mile race, Tiz The Law was a three-length winner two months ago in the Holy Bull despite unfavorable traffic early in the race. Ridden as usual by Manny Franco, the $110,000 colt is by Constitution, the stallion responsible for three of the four shortest-priced entries on the Florida Derby morning line. Out of a Tiznow mare, Tiz The Law’s Holy Bull victory was a rebound from a third-place disappointment Nov. 30 in a rain-drenched Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes.
“It was a very long eight weeks going from the Kentucky Jockey Club to the Holy Bull,” Tiz The Law’s owner Jack Knowlton said. “We just hit a race that things didn’t go our way at Churchill. The rain would not relent. The longer the day went the sloppier the track got. He got stuck down inside, and that really wasn’t the best of trips for him. You draw a line through that race even though he only got beat only three-quarters of a length.”
Drawn into post 9 on Saturday for Trombetta, Independence Hall (9-2) was the future-book co-favorite with Tiz The Law as recently as Jan. 3. That was right after he won the Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct by four lengths to run his record to 3-for-3. For whatever reason his odds began to drift – and that was before his second-place finish as the odds-on favorite in the Sam F. Davis Stakes last month at Tampa Bay Downs. Also by Constitution but out of a Cape Town mare, Independence Hall is now 12-1 in the William Hill futures.
“He had a few excuses (in the Sam F. Davis) that we can build on,” said Trombetta, who is using jockey Joel Rosario on Saturday instead of José Ortiz. “It was his first two-turn race. He chased a lively pace and probably paid for it a little bit at the end. For whatever it’s worth he did lose a shoe in the race. He seems to be doing well, and we’d like to give it a chance on Saturday.”
With two long shots likely to try for the early lead, Été Indien (4-1) could beat them all to the front if he gets a strong break from his poor draw. Post 12 is notoriously bad for nine-furlong races at Gulfstream Park, where the run to the first turn is only 150 yards. But on the same track four weeks ago, he was stuck in post 10. Under an intense, focused push by jockey Florent Geroux, Été Indien got the early lead and never trailed in winning the Fountain of Youth.
“We had to ask him to get out of a bad hole,” Été Indien’s trainer Patrick Biancone said. “When he got the lead he relaxed immediately, and he was very manageable.”
Sired by Summer Front and bought in Biancone’s native France last year for $269,500 at the Arqana sale, Été Indien’s only loss in his last three races came when he finished second to Tiz The Law in the Holy Bull, which was 110 yards shorter than the Florida Derby.
“A mile-and-an-eighth to (Tiz The Law) I don’t think is any challenge to him at all,” Knowlton said.
“I don’t think (Été Indien) has a problem with stamina,” Biancone said.
If there is a wise-guy horse, it is Gouverneur Morris (8-1), the other by Constitution. Drawn favorably into post 5, he has two wins and a second-place finish for Pletcher. He will be ridden by John Velázquez, who was on board for both his wins, including a two-turn allowance victory last month at Tampa Bay Downs.
“We decided to go to the Tampa allowance race where we’ve had success in years past; Always Dreaming and Super Saver both made starts there as 3-year-olds,” said Pletcher, referring to his two Kentucky Derby winners.
Pletcher’s plan had been to take one shot to get Gouverneur Morris the points that he needed for the Kentucky Derby. Now that everything has been pushed back, Saturday’s race looked like the least complicated place to turn the page for now.
“The Florida Derby is right in front of us,” Pletcher said. “In uncertain times like this we felt like we needed to take what’s right in front of us now as opposed to waiting around for something else.”
After this weekend, who knows how the Derby trail will unfold? Churchill Downs has yet to assign any points designations to races late this spring or into the summer. Why would it not knowing how the pandemic will ultimately unfold?
“It’s been a frustrating time for everyone,” Pletcher said. “But juggling some horse schedules seems like some unimportant stuff compared to what’s going on in the rest of the world.”
Racing notes and opinions
While Tiz The Law and Independence Hall are worthy of their short prices, that does not mean that I have to key them in my Florida Derby bets. I will not ignore them, but I will focus my money on Été Indien. Impressive as it was, Geroux’s push to the lead out of an awful draw was not necessarily exceptional for this horse. I am counting on him to do that again. I am taking a chance that As Seen On Tv (12-1) will benefit from a ground-saving, rail trip under Paco López, whose hot streak was highlighted by his seven wins Saturday at Gulfstream Park. So my exotics will include Tiz The Law, Independence Hall, Été Indien and As Seen On Tv.
It is supposed to be nice at Gulfstream Park on Saturday. The National Weather Service forecast is for a sunny day with the high near 83 and a southeast wind 5-13 mph.
Hall of Famer Javier Castellano, who was assigned by Pletcher to ride the front-running Candy Tycoon (20-1) in Saturday’s Florida Derby, tested positive Wednesday for the coronavirus. “After being in New York with my family last week, I was asked by Gulfstream to come early to Florida to get tested for the virus,” a post to Castellano’s Twitter account said. “I was asymptomatic all along. Unfortunately the test came back (Wednesday) night as positive. I am otherwise healthy but will follow the doctors’ orders to quarantine for the next two weeks. I have had no known contact with anyone that has tested positive.” Castellano has not ridden in a race since March 15 at Gulfstream Park. Pletcher had not publicly named a replacement jockey Thursday.
The pandemic was the reason for the cancellation of Saturday’s Dubai World Cup card as well as the suspension of racing at Charles Town, Laurel Park, Sam Houston Race Park, Sunland Park and Turfway Park. The Fair Grounds had already cut its winter season a week short, Keeneland had canceled its spring meet, Woodbine’s opener was postponed, and Aqueduct’s closure was extended to at least April 5. That means that the April 4 Wood Memorial is on an indefinite hold. With gates closed to keep out fans, Oaklawn Park continues apace with its Thursday-Sunday racing schedule, which will climax with the rescheduled Arkansas Derby on May 2, the original date for the Kentucky Derby.
Fonner Park, Neb., and Will Rogers Downs, Okla., were the only two courses holding races in the U.S. on Monday and Tuesday. The hunger for something – anything – to bet on proved to be a boon to both tracks. Horse Racing Nation reported that Monday’s handle at Fonner Park was close to $1.3 million, more than double any previous day this century. Will Rogers Downs lured nearly $2.2 million in wagers, more than 2½ times the take 52 weeks earlier. This burst of history may repeat itself Monday, when the two tracks are again the only ones open to thoroughbred racing in North America.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning – more frequently for big races – at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. In spite of the pandemic, Gulfstream Park is going ahead with this weekend’s Florida Derby, and it is the focus of the Ron Flatter Racing Pod. Horse Race Insider’s John Pricci from south Florida handicaps the race, and trainer Patrick Biancone discusses his colt Été Indien. The impact of the coronavirus on horse racing is also discussed. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available via Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.