Will Gouverneur Morris Upset the Florida Derby?

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 Gulfstream Park.

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 Derby.

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 Ete Indien.

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 Jerome Stakes.

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?


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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.

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