Five things to know for Florida Derby

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

April 1st, 2017

This winter’s Kentucky Derby (G1) preps at Gulfstream Park have featured plot twists. Champion Classic Empire was upset in the Holy Bull (G2) by Irish War Cry, who unceremoniously flopped next time in the Fountain of Youth (G2), and both are now taking other roads to Louisville.

Meanwhile, Fountain of Youth romper Gunnevera hopes to end the pattern in Saturday’s $1 million Florida Derby (G1), and take home the 100 Derby points reserved for the winner. If he does, he would emulate his sire Dialed In, the 2011 Florida Derby victor.

Here are my five things to know for the Florida Derby:

1. Gunnevera may get a similarly beneficial pace set-up as in the Fountain of Youth. Unlike the Holy Bull, where Irish War Cry got a cozy front-running trip and Gunnevera was a troubled second, the Fountain of Youth produced a stronger opening half-mile thanks to Three Rules.

Not only is Three Rules back in the Florida Derby – and probably has to hoof it from post 10 – but there’s additional speed on the inside. Whether anyone clears, or it’s a scrum up front, the pace should resemble the Fountain of Youth more than the Holy Bull. And with his powerful closing kick, Gunnevera should prosper once again, this time with an extra sixteenth of a mile and as the 9-5 favorite on the morning line.

But there are two key differences in the Florida Derby. Gunnevera is parked on the far outside post 11. While theoretically that shouldn’t matter for a horse of his running style, it’s been tough trying to win from that kind of post in nine-furlong races at Gulfstream. The other possible concern involves the opposition. In the Fountain of Youth, Gunnevera’s margin was likely inflated because he was drubbing doubtful stayers in Practical Joke and Three Rules, and Irish War Cry had long given way. The Antonio Sano trainee is still the best on paper heading into the Florida Derby, but his principal rivals are entitled to see out the trip themselves.

2. Case in point is Always Dreaming, who’s finally emerged as Todd Pletcher’s preferred Florida Derby candidate (see more in No. 3). The $350,000 son of Bodemeister gets even more speed from his dam’s side, as a half-brother to 2009 Spinaway (G1) winner Hot Dixie Chick, out of sprinter Above Perfection (the Prioress [G1] near-misser to Xtra Heat). But Always Dreaming may also inherit his sire’s ability to carry speed over a classic distance, and he’s two-for-two since joining Pletcher. After forcing the pace en route to an 11-length maiden conquest at Tampa Bay Downs, he sauntered on the lead in an allowance over the Florida Derby track and trip and drew off in hand. It was a glorified workout, but he quickened smartly to record a 112 BRIS Late Pace rating.

Always Dreaming faces the biggest class test of his life against Gunnevera. He’ll also have to employ some tactical adaptability, unless he wants to argue with Three Rules early. As a juvenile for trainer Domenick Schettino, however, Always Dreaming did rally from just off the pace, so that option should remain in his playbook. Reports indicate he’s been working well, perhaps the clincher for putting him in this spot.

3. Battalion Runner, who was pointing to the Florida Derby all along, has had his plans shuffled. Pletcher still entered him, but reportedly as an insurance policy for Always Dreaming. (Saturday update: Battalion Runner has indeed been scratched.) The duo have some ownership in common (St Elias Stable), and the intention was to divide them in hopes of maximizing value – and Derby points.

Always Dreaming was originally expected to go on his travels, with Battalion Runner holding down the fort at Gulfstream, until the idea was reversed. According to the revised itinerary, Battalion Runner was supposed to fly out for the Santa Anita Derby (G1). That changed too. Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman found that Battalion Runner was in line for the Wood Memorial (G2) or Arkansas Derby (G1).

If by some additional happenstance Battalion Runner ends up running here after all, note that the forward type has won both starts over the track. By Unbridled’s Song (the 1996 Florida Derby winner) and out of a full sister to 2012 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) victor Tapizar, the $700,000 Keeneland September yearling dominated a seven-furlong maiden on New Year’s Eve. Next he was forced to fight in a two-turn allowance before subduing Beasley, who could have given us a better read on him in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2). Unfortunately, Beasley was out of position at Tampa after a bobbling start, and he subsequently underwent surgery. His outing there is inconclusive about Battalion Runner's merit.

4. State of Honor will try to uphold Tapwrit and McCraken’s Tampa form. Mark Casse’s Ontario-bred flashed high speed when sporting blinkers in both the Sam F. Davis (G3), where he finished third to McCraken and Tapwrit, and in the Tampa Bay Derby, where he beat all bar stakes record-setting Tapwrit. Drawn on the rail in the Florida Derby, State of Honor may again go forward.

But interestingly, State of Honor removes the blinkers on Saturday. In his last try sans headgear, he missed by a head to Sonic Mule in Gulfstream’s one-mile Mucho Macho Man in January. Perhaps State of Honor may have sharpened up enough in the blinkers, and now has the opportunity to be a little more tactical without them. He’s another, like Always Dreaming (or Battalion Runner), who’s eligible to pick up the baton and roll with it.

State of Honor has an added incentive against Gunnevera: his sire, To Honor and Serve, was third behind Dialed In here six years ago.

5. Impressive Edge, who’s not Triple Crown nominated, stretches out to two turns for Dale Romans. Yet another with a Florida Derby winner for a sire, Impressive Edge is by 2002 hero Harlan’s Holiday. The $400,000 OBS March juvenile is two-for-three since switching to Romans at Gulfstream. His two sprint wins have come by a combined margin of 12 3/4 lengths, including a defeat of Pletcher firster Patch, a subsequent winner who runs in Saturday’s Louisiana Derby (G2).

Impressive Edge’s lone Gulfstream loss was a fourth after chasing a torrid pace in the Swale (G2), where Three Rules was a fine second in his sophomore bow. In their rematch over an extra quarter-mile here, Impressive Edge figures to have the edge over Three Rules, a talented colt with distance limitations at this level. It’s another question, though, just how far that gets Impressive Edge versus the principals. That said, wouldn’t it be just like this Derby prep season to have a horse not nominated to the Triple Crown pull a surprise?

Check out the free Florida Derby PPs, courtesy of Brisnet, and happy Florida Derby Day!

Gunnevera photo courtesy Lauren King/Coglianese Photography