Will Fierceness Rebound in the Florida Derby?

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

No Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race currently in existence has produced more Kentucky Derby (G1) winners than the Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park. Since 1953, it's churned out 25 Kentucky Derby champs—that's slightly more than one every three years. Since the turn of the century alone, the Florida Derby has produced Derby winners Monarchos (2001), Barbaro (2006), Big Brown (2008), Orb (2013), Nyquist (2016), Always Dreaming (2017), and Mage (2023).

The Florida Derby typically draws a strong field, and this year is no exception. The 1 1/8-mile race has attracted 11 entries, including reigning champion two-year-old male #10 Fierceness (8-5). On his best day, Fierceness is brilliant, and surely talented enough to vie for victory in the Kentucky Derby. But consistency isn't his strong suit, and so far he's run below form as often as not, making it tricky to analyze his Florida Derby chances.

Fierceness debuted in a six-furlong maiden special weight at Saratoga last summer. Racing over a muddy track, he led all the way to obliterate a bevy of next-out winners by 11 1/4 lengths in the fast time of 1:09.56.

This powerful performance stamped Fierceness as an odds-on favorite to win the one-mile Champagne (G1) over a sloppy Aqueduct main track, but after breaking awkwardly and making a mid-race move, Fierceness retreated to finish a distant seventh.

Fierceness was back to his best in the 1 1/16-mile Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) at Santa Anita, in which he pressed an honest pace before drawing off with authority to trounce Grade 1 winners Muth, Locked, and Timberlake by 6 1/4 lengths—wow! His final time of 1:41.90 ranked as the fifth-fastest Juvenile ever contested over 1 1/16 miles, and it translated to powerful speed figures of 112 (Brisnet) and 105 (Beyer).

But Fierceness regressed when making his three-year-old debut in the Holy Bull (G3) at Gulfstream Park. Returning from a three-month layoff, Fierceness got bounced around at the start and never seemed to get into a rhythm while racing outside pedestrian fractions of :25.03, :50.53, and 1:14.25 set by pacesetting winner #2 Hades (7-2). Ultimately, Fierceness came up empty in the homestretch and settled for third place, beaten 3 1/2 lengths.

Here's the good news: Fierceness has turned in five sharp workouts since the Holy Bull, capped off by a bullet half-mile in :47 2/5 at Palm Beach Downs last Friday, so he should be primed for improvement in his second run of the season. There should be more pace in the Florida Derby than in the Holy Bull, giving Fierceness a suitable setup to turn the tables on Hades. Throw in the fact trainer Todd Pletcher has won the Florida Derby a record seven times (and jockey John Velazquez a record five times), and the stage appears set for Fierceness to rebound in a big way. I'm willing to bet he'll capture the Florida Derby, perhaps at decent odds thanks to his disappointing showing in the Holy Bull.

#9 Conquest Warrior (3-1) is going to be a popular alternative to Fierceness after winning back-to-back route races at Gulfstream Park, most recently taking a 1 1/8-mile $75,000 allowance optional claimer by five lengths. Purchased for $1 million as a yearling, Conquest Warrior has shown talent and is progressing in the right direction for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, though his highest speed figures to date (88 Brisnet, 84 Beyer) suggest he'll need meaningful improvement to beat Fierceness if the latter brings his A-game.

The above-mentioned Hades is another logical contender after going 3-for-3 so far. After rallying from last place to win a 5 1/2-furlong $50,000 maiden optional claimer at Gulfstream Park, he led almost all the way to take a seven-furlong Gulfstream allowance for Florida-breds by eight lengths. Identical tactics in the Holy Bull saw him deliver an upset victory by two lengths.

The slow pace of the Holy Bull obviously played in favor of Hades while compromising runner-up Domestic Product, who closed from behind to finish second. Domestic Product subsequently won the Tampa Bay Derby (G3). But if Hades can avoid getting caught up in a destructive pace this Saturday, there's no reason to think he can't hang around for a spot in the trifecta. He shouldn't have any trouble reaching the rail while breaking from post two with a closer to his inside.

One longshot I'll mention is #3 Bail Us Out (15-1), who rallied from midfield to win a 1 1/16-mile maiden special weight over the Gulfstream Park Tapeta track last month. Some bettors will dismiss Bail Us Out because he finished a non-threatening fourth in his debut on dirt, but as a son of Preakness (G1) winner Lookin At Lucky out of two-time dirt stakes winner Joffe's Run (by Giant's Causeway), there's no reason to think Bail Us Out is incapable of handling the Gulfstream main track. He has Todd Pletcher and five-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. in his corner, so based on connections alone Bail Us Out is worth respecting. I'd like to see Bail Us Out secure a forward position and put his stamina-packed pedigree to good use, which could simultaneously give stablemate Fierceness (they share the same ownership) an honest pace to pursue.

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.

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