Picks for the Florida Derby and Dubai

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Get ready everyone! An action-packed day of racing is scheduled for March 30th, with a championship card of racing at Meydan in Dubai being followed by a stakes-laden afternoon at Gulfstream Park that includes the Florida Derby (gr. I).

Let's dig in and examine five of the most significant races....

Florida Derby (gr. I)

Coming into this week, I was prepared to make #1 Hidden Scroll my selection for the Florida Derby. A 14-length debut winner for trainer Bill Mott, Hidden Scroll ran a big race in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) last month, carving out testing fractions of :22.80, :45.69, and 1:10.42 before weakening in the final furlong to finish fourth. Considering that he was only beaten three lengths by a trio of late runners, I thought he ran the best race on the day, and the data from RacingFlow.com seems to back up this belief—the race produced a Closer Favorability Ratio (CFR) of 97 out of 100, indicating a closer-friendly race.

But I'm concerned that Hidden Scroll might receive pretty much the same trip again. One of the reasons that he went out so fast in the Fountain of Youth was to beat the longshot sprinter Gladiator King (trained by Jamie Meija) to the early lead; notably, Meija has entered another clear front-runner (#6 Hard Belle) in the Florida Derby.

Perhaps Hidden Scroll can successfully rate off the pace, but doing so while breaking from the rail could be a task easier said than done. There's going to be a mad rush to the first turn, with horses drawn outside looking to drop in and save ground, so there will be little opportunity to play it safe and let the race unfold. The best strategy for Hidden Scroll might be to come out of the gate running in an effort to avoid getting buried inside on the first turn.

And even if Hidden Scroll is able to put away Hard Belle, he'll still have to contend with #7 Maximum Security, an undefeated sprinter hailing from the barn of trainer Jason Servis, who has gone 33-for-73 (45%) at Gulfstream this winter. Maximum Security has serious speed and could make things tricky for Hidden Scroll if he becomes intent on securing the early lead.

Sealing the deal is the fact that Hidden Scroll is the 5-2 morning line favorite. Even if you like him in general—which I do—I'm afraid there's little to no value in playing him at that price.

For all these reasons, I'm going to put my support behind #9 Code of Honor, the late-running winner of the Fountain of Youth. Yes, he did benefit from rallying into Hidden Scroll's fast pace, but I liked how he made a big move around the far turn to reach contention, gaining ground at a point when Hidden Scroll was trying to open up and put the race away on the front end. I also liked how Code of Honor cleanly split horses on two occasions and didn't mind rallying on the inside.

That wasn't the first time that Code of Honor has demonstrated the ability to run a big race—last fall, he overcame a stumble at the start of the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) to rally and finish second against a high-class field. And while he faltered in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes to kick off 2019, he had missed a couple of runs before that race and was surely at something less than his best in terms of fitness. Subsequently, he trained up a storm over the slow track at Payson Park and ran to his workouts in the Fountain of Youth. It might appear that Code of Honor's two breezes since then were modest from a time perspective (five furlongs in 1:01 flat and a half-mile in :48.40), but they were actually both bullet moves that suggest he's maintaining good form.

Some will note that the Fountain of Youth runner-up #4 Bourbon War was gobbling up ground late, and there's no doubt that this son of Tapit is a talented prospect—in fact, two starts back, he easily won a Gulfstream allowance race over the future Sunland Derby (gr. III) winner Cutting Humor.

But if there's any horse who truly benefited from the fast pace of the Fountain of Youth, it was Bourbon War, who rated more than ten lengths back through the opening half-mile. Unlike Code of Honor, Bourbon War didn't make much of a rally around the far turn and instead made his move down the homestretch, by far the slowest portion of the race. Code of Honor has superior tactical speed (he actually won his debut at Saratoga in gate-to-wire fashion), and in a fairly-run race, that's always going to give him an advantage over deep closers like Bourbon War.

And lastly, here's a fun fact—jockey John Velazquez, who will ride Code of Honor in the Florida Derby, has scored five wins, one second, and one third from his last seven rides in this race. If any jockey knows what it takes to win the Florida Derby, it's John Velazquez!

Dubai World Cup (UAE-I)

The American contingent in this race is solid—#1 Gunnevera, #4 Audible, #5 Seeking the Soul, #6 Pavel, and #10 Yoshida—but at the same time, no one here seems to be on par with California Chrome or Arrogate, two recent American winners of the Dubai World Cup.

Just as significant, I question whether any of them truly thrive running 1 ¼ miles, and since they're all generally late runners, they could be compromised here at Meydan, a track that tends to favor speed horses and rail runners.

#12 Thunder Snow won this race last year in gate-to-wire fashion, but he'll be facing more speed this time around and was beaten 9 ½ lengths by #2 Capezzano in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3 (UAE-I) over this track and distance three weeks ago. Thunder Snow should improve a lot off that effort—it was his seasonal debut after all—but I like Capezzano to win right back.

A stoutly-bred son of Bernardini out of an Unbridled's Song mare, Capezzano has turned into a beast this winter with three powerful wins at Meydan. He's got the speed and the post draw to work out a perfect trip over this speed-favoring track, and with back-to-back Racing Post Ratings of 118 and 119, he's already among the fastest horses in the field. With Thunder Snow and five Americans in the field, I think Capezzano could be overlooked in the U.S. wagering pool and offer the best value from a wagering perspective.

UAE Derby (UAE-II)

Much like Capezzano, #1 Walking Thunder should have every chance to dominate the UAE Derby on the front end while breaking from the inside post. The son of Violence opened his career with three easy wins at Meydan, including a nine-length romp in the UAE 2,000 Guineas Trial, but lost a lot of his luster when finishing second in the UAE 2,000 Guineas (UAE-III) last month.

However, I'm inclined to take an optimistic view of Walking Thunder's performance that day. He got squeezed out of a forwardly-placed position early in the race and didn't react well to the kickback, which forced jockey Connor Beasley to take him back and guide him outside. A wide trip from off the pace over the Meydan main track isn't ideal, so I thought Walking Thunder did well to rally and finish second behind the ground-saving, front-running winner.

A more alert start from the rail post could be all that Walking Thunder needs to rebound, and it's worth noting that he'll have top jockey Frankie Dettori in the saddle. Walking Thunder is another runner that could be overlooked in the U.S. pool and offer appealing odds.

Dubai Turf (UAE-I)

I'm playing against three favorites already, so I won't overthink this one. #7 Almond Eye has been nothing less than sensational in Japan, winning six of her seven starts with complete authority, including a sweep of last year's Japan Filly Triple Crown. She proved that she can handle older males while crushing the 1 ½-mile Japan Cup (Jpn-I) in the world-record time of 2:20.60, and from all appearances, she represents Japan's best chance to win the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I) in October since the great Orfevre.

Yes, the 1 1/8-mile distance of the Dubai Turf is shorter than Almond Eye has been running as of late, but the daughter of Lord Kanaloa had no difficulty winning the one-mile Oka Sho (Jpn-I) last spring, producing a big finish from the back of the pack to win going away. Truthfully, I think Almond Eye is an underrated superstar who will have little difficulty cruising to another impressive victory on Saturday. Remember, Japanese shippers have won three of the last five editions of this race.

Dubai Gold Cup (UAE-II)

The Godolphin duo of #9 Cross Counter and #6 Ispolini are the favorites in this two-mile test of stamina, and understandably so—Cross Counter won the two-mile Melbourne Cup (Aus-I) in November, and Ispolini was tons the best in the 1 ¾-mile Nad Al Sheba Trophy (UAE-III) at Meydan last month.

But it's possible that neither of them have as much stamina as #2 Call the Wind, who showed steady improvement last year during a season that culminated with a victory in the 2 ½-mile Prix de Cadran (Fr-I) at Longchamp. Trained by the accomplished Freddie Head, Call the Wind was beaten in his 2019 debut, finishing second in the Prix Darshaan, but that was a 1 3/16-mile race held over the all-weather track at Chantilly, a performance that looks like a prep run in the truest sense of the term.

Interestingly, Head used a similar all-weather race at Chantilly to prepare Solow for a crack at the 2015 Dubai Turf, and the result was an effortless victory at Meydan for the previously unheralded runner. I'm expecting much the same from Call the Wind.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like around the world this weekend?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.

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