By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Few—if any—Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races have
been more productive steppingstones toward the Kentucky Derby than the $750,000 Florida Derby (G1) at
Since the turn of the century, Monarchos (2001), Barbaro
(2006), Big Brown (2008), Orb (2013), Nyquist (2016), and Always Dreaming
(2017) have managed to win both races, while 2019 Florida Derby winner Maximum
Security crossed the wire first at Churchill Downs before being disqualified
for causing interference on the far turn.
But although the Florida Derby boasts a stellar roster of
winners, favorites have not enjoyed much success in recent renewals of the
race. Over the last ten years, only Audible (1.60-1 in 2018) has managed to
prevail while favored to win. Almost as remarkable? During the same timeframe,
only two horses exiting Gulfstream's Fountain of Youth Stakes (Orb and Ice Box)
have managed to win the Florida Derby.
Established winter stakes performers simply haven't had
much luck in the Florida Derby as of late. Instead, they've been overshadowed
by runners stepping up in class. Horses exciting allowance races, starter allowance
races, and ungraded stakes races have claimed six of the last ten editions of
the Florida Derby, a formidable streak of success.
Three of those class-jumping winners (Always Dreaming,
Materiality, and Constitution) were conditioned by Gulfstream's perennial
leading trainer Todd Pletcher, who has won the Florida Derby on five occasions.
Pletcher will be represented by two horses in Saturday's edition of the Florida
Derby, and one of them—#5 Gouverneur
Morris, a son of Constitution—could become the latest horse parlay a minor
victory into success in the Florida Derby.
That's not to say Gouverneur Morris has never run against
top company. To the contrary, the $600,000 2-year-old-in-training purchase finished
a game second in the Breeders' Futurity (G1) at Keeneland last fall, one start
after winning his debut at Saratoga by nine lengths. In the Breeders' Futurity,
Gouverneur Morris finished ahead of future Lecomte (G3) winner Enforceable and
Remsen (G2) runner-up #6 Ajaaweed,
with the latter joining Gouverneur Morris among the entries for the Florida
After taking some time off over the winter, Gouverneur
Morris returned to action in a 1-mile and 40-yard allowance optional claiming
race on Feb. 14 at Tampa Bay Downs, where he was favored at 1-2 against a small
but quality field. After tracking the early pace, Gouverneur Morris rallied to
win by 1 1/4 lengths over the speedy Untitled, who returned to finish a game second
in the Gotham (G3) at Aqueduct. Gouverneur Morris' winning time was a sharp
1:38.88, missing the track record by just 0.02.
Gouverneur Morris has come back with some sharp workouts
at Palm Beach Downs, including a bullet five furlongs in 1:00 2/5 on Mar. 15,
so I'm optimistic he'll run his best race yet in the Florida Derby. He'll be
guided on Saturday by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, who has compiled an
extraordinary record in recent editions of the 1 1/8-mile race. Since 2009, Velazquez
has scored five wins, a second, and two thirds from eight rides in the Florida
Derby—that's a 62.5% win rate and a 100% in-the-money rate. Three of his
victories came aboard horses trained by Pletcher.
I'm optimistic Gouverneur Morris will receive the trip he
needs to win on Saturday. The gray colt has tactical speed but is comfortable
rating behind the leaders, which should allow him to secure a perfect early
position in the mad rush to the first turn. There's no shortage of speed in the
Florida Derby field; the graded stakes-placed sprinter #2 Shivaree will almost certainly be vying for the early lead, along
with the maiden #8 My First Grammy and
runaway Fountain of Youth (G2) winner #12
A contested battle for early supremacy could prove
problematic for Ete Indien. Although he was powerful winning the Feb. 29 Fountain
of Youth by 8 1/2 lengths, the son of Summer Front enjoyed a beautiful break
from post ten and was able to clear all his rivals in the short run to the
first turn. This allowed Ete Indien to set a comfortable pace on the front end,
after which he powered clear with authority.
There's no guarantee Ete Indien will catch another
perfect start while breaking from post twelve in the Florida Derby, setting up the
potential for a wide trip while pushing a fast pace. Perhaps he'll prove good enough
to overcome this adversity, but the Fountain of Youth wasn't the only big effort
Ete Indien fired off last month—he also finished a strong second in the Feb. 1 Holy
Bull (G3) at Gulfstream. With back-to-back tough races under his belt, I wonder
whether Ete Indien can take another step forward in the Florida Derby, or if
regression is more likely.
Ete Indien isn't the only potentially vulnerable favorite
in the Florida Derby field. The 6-5 morning line favorite #7 Tiz the Law overcame a slightly troubled trip to beat Ete Indien
by three lengths in the Holy Bull, a powerful effort that produced a 100 Beyer
speed figure. A decisive winner of the Champagne (G1) as a juvenile, Tiz the
Law might be undefeated if not for a troubled trip in the Kentucky Jockey Club
(G2) and has been among the favorites for the Kentucky Derby since last fall.
But Tiz the Law missed some training time in February and
will enter the Florida Derby off a two-month layoff. Granted, he's turned in a
couple of bullet workouts this month, but with the recently-postponed Kentucky
Derby looming as his ultimate goal, Tiz the Law is unlikely to be cranked for a
maximum effort on Saturday. He can certainly win, but at 6-5, I'm not sure he
offers any value.
Taking all of this together, I'm optimistic Gouverneur
Morris can spring a mild upset in the Florida Derby. For the exotics, I'll strongly
consider the talented but somewhat green #9
Independence Hall. The son of Constitution seemed like a work in progress in
his first three starts, suffering from issues ranging from slow starts to drifting
about in the homestretch. It's a testament to his talent that Independence Hall
won all three of those races in dominant fashion, including the Nashua (G3) and
Ironically, I was more impressed with Independence Hall's
first defeat. Favored at 7-10 in the Sam F. Davis (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs,
Independence Hall tracked a fast pace before understandably weakening to finish
second behind future Tampa Bay Derby (G2) runner-up Sole Volante. Even in
defeat, Independence Hall pulled 11 1/4 lengths clear of third-place finisher
Ajaaweed and earned a respectable 92 Beyer.
Like Gouverneur Morris, Independence Hall has tactical
speed coupled with the ability to settle off the lead, which should help the
son of Constitution work out a favorable trip in Saturday's competitive race.
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Florida Derby?
Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contests page—there's a new challenge every week!
The Road to the Kentucky Derby handicapping challenge is back for the sixth straight year! Check out the Road to the Kentucky Derby contest page for more details.
J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, 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.