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Experience means little in Florida Derby

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

Greatest_Honour_FOY
Greatest Honour, shown with jockey José Ortiz winning the Fountain of Youth Stakes, is the favorite for Saturday’s $750,000 Grade 1 Florida Derby. (Gulfstream Park photo)

It gets a lot of respect as one of the four most important prep races for the Kentucky Derby. But is the Florida Derby really worth all the hype? The question arises this year because the field for Saturday’s $750,000 renewal at Gulfstream Park looks thin on quality.

Of the 11 horses entered, only two – morning-line favorite Greatest Honour (6-5) and Bob Baffert’s $1 million shipper Spielberg (4-1) – have won graded stakes. Nova Rags (12-1) is the only other stakes winner of any kind in the race. Five others have never even been in a dirt stakes. Four are still only maiden winners.

Weigh all this against the historic backdrop of a race that has that has spawned 15 Kentucky Derby winners, more than any other current points prep. Three of the last eight years, the first-place finishers at Gulfstream – Orb (2013), Nyquist (2016) and Always Dreaming (2017) – were also the big winners at Churchill Downs.

Lately, though, the Florida Derby has come up shallow in quality. In the last five years only 13 of the 49 starters had won a graded stakes beforehand. Nyquist, Audible and Tiz The Law were among them before they got back to the winner’s circle. On the other hand, Always Dreaming and Maximum Security made triumphant stakes debuts in the Florida Derby, and they would cross the wire first at Louisville. (Insert the Maximum Security fine print here.)

If there is a message here, it is that quality does not necessarily reveal itself through supposedly better stakes, especially for young 3-year-olds in an era when they have become lightly raced. It is more a sign of the times, when owners and trainers baby their colts like they are starting pitchers going six or seven innings a week in a five-man rotation.

Between Holy Bull in 1994 and Scat Daddy in 2007, 11 of the 14 Florida Derby winners had also experienced victory in a prior graded stakes from an average of 5.7 races beforehand. Since 2008 that has applied to only 6 of 13 winners who averaged only 3.8 preps ahead of their Florida Derby victories.

The biggest challenge for bettors nowadays is the lack of racing samples. Quality horses, especially entire males, are being rushed through fewer starts on the way to more lucrative breeding careers. No wonder it is hard to figure out whether a $600,000 colt like Collaborate (6-1), with only two starts in maiden races, is really worthy of his short odds making his stakes debut in the Florida Derby.

Figs and sheets only go so far, don’t they? At least we have access to video of every past race of every horse on the Kentucky Derby trail. So never mind skimpy PPs. All we have to do is watch and win, right? No sweat.

Racing notes and opinions

From 0-for-3 as a 2-year-old in New York to 3-for-3 this year in Florida. Closing from as far as 8½ lengths back, Greatest Honour has come out of the clouds to become one of the three shortest-priced horses in futures betting for the Kentucky Derby. His victories in the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth produced career-best Beyer Speed Figures of only 89 when 95 is the benchmark for Derby winners. In Willy Boi and Drain The Clock, he had honest pace to chase in those races. Since they are not around this weekend, credible early speed might not be on display in the nine-furlong Florida Derby. This bodes well for Spielberg, a tactically versatile if enigmatic colt that will be Baffert’s first starter ever in this race. Spielberg blew the start last month in the Arkansas slop and still finished second to Essential Quality in the Southwest Stakes. Baffert tightened him into a handy workout last weekend. Despite the poor draw in post 10, Spielberg is the choice to show tactical speed and win at Gulfstream Park. Greatest Honour, Sam F. Davis runner-up Nova Rags (12-1) and turf graduate Sigoloso (30-1) will also feature on my tickets. With a forecast for ideal weather, the Florida Derby is posted for Saturday at 6:40 p.m. EDT.

If the road to the Kentucky Derby were the road to the Final Four, the $250,000 Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks would be the Summit League. The winner of this nine-furlong race on fake dirt will certainly not be one of the 20 best 3-year-olds in the country. But he will get an automatic invitation to the Derby. Since Churchill Downs Inc. bought Turfway Park last year, the reward for winning the Jeff Ruby was fattened to 100 points. Even the 40 points for finishing second should get that horse to Louisville, too. Of the last eight winners at Turfway, only three went on to race for the roses, and none finished better than 10th. An example of this field’s weakness is the morning-line favorite. Trainer Rodolphe Brisset moved former Baffert turfer Tarantino (3-1) to the dirt, where he was a distant second and fourth to Greatest Honour in this winter’s Derby preps at Gulfstream Park. Course horse Hush Of A Storm (4-1) is 3-for-3 at Turfway Park, including last month’s triumph in the Battaglia Memorial. That was the race in which Gretzky The Great (5-1) was the pacesetting favorite before finishing third. The Jeff Ruby is 110 yards longer, but Gretzky The Great gets a better rider in Chris Landeros. That means he may not be pressured to the lead that may instead by held by Moonlite Strike (12-1), a Saffie Joseph Jr. trainee that gets blinkers for the first time. Gretzky The Great is the choice here with Tarantino, Hush Of A Storm and Moonlite Strike filling out the verticals. A sunny, 75-degree day is expected for the Jeff Ruby on Saturday at 6:25 p.m. EDT.

The 25th renewal of the $12 million Group 1 Dubai World Cup will be the 1¼-mile feature Saturday at Meydan. It is not the flashiest field in the race’s history. American 4-year-olds Mystic Guide (5-2) and Jesús Team (6-1) are the top two choices in early European wagering. (Betting is illegal in Dubai.) Locally based 6-year-old geldings Military Law (6-1) and Salute The Soldier (7-1) will get attention for their group victories this winter at Meydan. The 7-year-old gelding Capezzano (50-1) is the obvious pacesetter, but he will fade late. A three-time Grade 1 winner in Japan, Chuwa Wizard (16-1) is the choice here to improve on a listless ninth in the Saudi Cup. He never fired at Riyadh, but he has a history of improving in his second race after a break. On what is expected to be a clear, 85-degree night, the Dubai World Cup starts Saturday at 12:50 p.m. EDT.

The Grade 2 UAE Derby on the Meydan undercard will qualify the winner and perhaps the runner-up for the Kentucky Derby. The undefeated Dubai colt Panadol (9-2), Japanese maiden France Go De Ina (6-1), local filly Mnasek (8-1), local colt Mouheeb (8-1) and Saudi Derby winner Pink Kamehameha (8-1) are the shortest-priced horses in the field of 14. The pacesetting Panadol won over the course and 9½-furlong distance three weeks ago, but there is still a class question. France Go De Ina was fourth in his November debut, but he has been drawing strong reviews for his morning workouts, and he adds Joel Rosario as his rider Saturday. The thought here is a proven pace-chaser can get the job done, and the Godolphin colt Soft Whisper (12-1) fills the bill. He had won four in a row before he and Mike Smith faded to fifth as the co-favorite in the Saudi Derby. Reunited with jockey Pat Cosgrave, he seems like an overlay worth pursuing. The UAE Derby starts Saturday at 10:05 a.m. EDT.

The U.S. betting menu for the Dubai World Cup card will look a lot like a normal race day in America. According to XBTV, there will be win, place, show, exacta, swinger (two horses in the top three), quinella, trifecta and superfecta options available. Horizontal wagers include rolling doubles, Pick 3s, a late Pick 4 and a late Pick 6. The U.S. betting pool will be co-mingled with Australia, Canada, Europe, Hong Kong and Singapore. Saturday’s nine-race card starts at 7:45 a.m. EDT. The first Thoroughbred race is at 8:15 a.m.

Undefeated Eclipse Award winner Essential Quality (3-1) is the morning-line favorite for this weekend’s fifth and final pool in the pari-mutuel Kentucky Derby Future Wager operated by Churchill Downs. That estimate compares with the 9-2 best price he carries in Nevada fixed-odds pools. Greatest Honour (4-1), Concert Tour (9-2) and Hot Rod Charlie (6-1) are also among the top four on the morning line. There are 22 individual choices plus an “all others” field entry (20-1). A 23rd individual horse, Big Lake, had betting suspended before it began when trainer Steve Asmussen reported he suffered a condylar fracture. The KDFW runs from Friday at noon to Sunday at 6 p.m. EDT.

To paraphrase the original title of “ABC News Nightline,” this is the betting crisis, Nevada held hostage, day 517. That is how long the monetary impasse has lasted between Churchill Downs Inc. and the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association. It means the KDFW and Jeff Ruby Steaks are unavailable statewide. Sources in both Las Vegas and Kentucky say now that there was a conversation between the two sides early last month, but they were not budging. At this rate it appears Nevada racebooks may do again what they did last year. That was to book the Derby and Kentucky Oaks on their own and honor track pari-mutuels at their own risk. If history repeats itself it will mean no multi-race wagers other than the Oaks-Derby double and strict limits on vertical wagers. Then again, there are still 36 days until the Derby. That means there hope for a settlement. What better time for a long shot to pay off.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big events. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This weekend’s Kentucky Derby preps are in the spotlight on the Ron Flatter Racing Pod. Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott talks about Nova Rags in the Florida Derby – plus Channel Maker’s bid to win the Dubai Sheema Classic. Gulfstream Park and Fox Sports TV analyst Acacia Courtney offers analysis from south Florida. Ralph Siraco of Race Day Las Vegas handicaps the weekend’s races. The RFRP is available now at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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