It was my thought all along that the Florida Derby was going to be the most telling prep race of the season. In hindsight I believe I was right, but not in the way that I expected.
With the exception of Dialed In and an unexpected big run from Shackleford, the Florida Derby was largely disappointing. Three of the top Triple Crown contenders--Soldat, To Honor and Serve, and Stay Thirsty--all faltered and in my mind, took themselves out of serious consideration for winning the Kentucky Derby. I know that is a bold statement off of one race and each is talented enough to rebound with a big effort next month, but it will be very difficult for me to back any of them off of what I saw.
Soldat fans will draw a line through the Florida Derby, pointing to the fact that he failed to finish in the top two for the first time in his eight-start career. But it is the way that he lost it that is more telling for me. In both of his starts this year he was able to grab the lead in races with little early speed. When this horse gets on the lead he gets very brave and is tough to beat. But in the Florida Derby, a race with more early speed, we saw that Soldat is not fast enough to get the lead out of the gate and he struggled when dirt was kicked in his face. He's not a horse with a devastating turn of foot that can pick off horses around the turn. He is a horse that prefers to be on the front end and turn away horses trying to catch him. He likely won't have that luxury in the Derby. If he can't stay away from early traffic and carve out an ideal trip, he will be in trouble.
I will throw in one caveat, and that is the weather. If the track comes up wet on Derby Day, as it has the last two years, Soldat moves way up on my list.
In the case of To Honor and Serve, he still has the tactical speed he showed as a 2-year-old when he won those two grade II stakes at Aqueduct. In both starts this year he put himself in winning position around the turn, but he clearly lacks the closing punch he showed in 2010. Whether he has regressed or the other 3-year-olds have just gotten better, I don't know. But it is clear that To Honor and Serve is a couple of notches behind this class. It's one thing to finish third in both Derby preps, it's a completely different thing to be beaten 6 3/4 lengths in each one.
Stay Thirsty may have regressed more than any of the three. It's hard to quantify how much the failed blinkers on experiment affected him, but suffice it say that Todd Pletcher won't keep them on for the Derby. There were reports that Stay Thirsty was not training as well for the Florida Derby as he was for the Gotham, and it obviously showed on the track. Pletcher said Stay Thirsty really had no excuse for his poor performance, which is not a good sign when you are five weeks away from running in the biggest race of your life.
As far as Dialed In, it was a visually impressive performance that will certainly make him one of the favorites for the Derby. He continues to show that explosiveness on the turn that closers need to win classic races. And the fact that he did the same thing at Churchill Downs when breaking his maiden is very encouraging. He is a very nice horse and legitimate contender.
With that said, Dialed In's slow final fractions and the average final time cannot be blindly dismissed. As explosive as Dialed In is around the turn, he does not finish races in the same powerful fashion. We saw that in his March 6 allowance race when he couldn't get by his stablemate and even in the Florida Derby he needed nearly all of what he had to nail an exhausted Shackleford, who ran a taxing :46.35 half mile. Yes he won on a speed favoring track and yes he did what he needed to do. But finishing up the final eighth in :13 and change and in a final time of 1:50.07 leaves some reason for doubt. Don't forget, a pair of fillies--R Heat Lightning and Awesome Maria--ran a second faster than he did the previous day and earned higher speed figures. I thought Pletcher's quote to DRF was pretty telling: "To me, even though they ran on different days, usually it's not a good sign for the colts when fillies run faster."
Look, Dialed In has proven himself to be near the top of what is increasingly looking like an average crop of 3-year-olds gearing up for the Triple Crown. But with his running style that will require him to circle almost the entire Derby field on May 7, I will probably be looking elsewhere for the winner.
The bottom line is that the Florida Derby was a much weaker race that I expected. Hopefully, the Wood and Santa Anita Derby will tell us more this weekend.