All eyes watching the Road to the Kentucky Derby will be focused on the the $1 million, Grade 1 Xpressbet.com Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on Saturday. Run at 1 1/8 miles , the Florida Derby features a competitive group of 3-year-old runners in a race that has serious Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve implications. There has been a lot of talk about this year’s Florida Derby, and no shortage of questions are being floated around on Twitter. As always, questions are welcome and can be submitted through reaching out on Twitter using @EmilyOptixEQ. Without further ado, here are five questions to be answered in the Florida Derby.
Hidden Scroll drew the rail in the Florida Derby, as he did in his sensational debut at Gulfstream on Jan. 26, and similar to that afternoon the rail post should not be any issue on Saturday. The rail draw can be tricky, though often so much emphasis is placed on the post that it takes away from other handicapping factors. Questions about post position should be addressed based on each individual horse, their running style, past gate behaviors, and perhaps most importantly, the projected pace scenario for that particular race. With only two races to base my impressions on, clearly this is a horse that has brilliance. While other horses may try to get the lead in the Florida Derby, he is faster than his rivals should Javier Castellano find himself on the lead and go on with it early. There is some talk about comparing the Florida Derby morning-line longshot Hard Belle with Gladiator King in the Feb. 3 Xpressbet.com Fountain of Youth Stakes, as the latter put pace pressure on Hidden Scroll in that race and may have caused him to set fractions that were too fast, contributing to a fourth-place finish. Let me be clear: Hard Belle is nowhere near fast enough to run with Hidden Scroll in the Florida Derby, so that comparison is not valid. Related to that discussion is the question of whether or not Hidden Scroll can be rated. In my opinion, this is a horse that can be rated as needed. Visually he does not present himself, so far, as a horse that is a true “need the lead” type. He does not pull his jockey or get rank while racing; he is just fast. Hidden Scroll’s fast early pace in the Fountain of Youth Stakes had many factors come together at a bad time, and the chance of those happening again are low. One of those factors was Hidden Scroll getting some contact at the start. He took a legitimate bump from his outside rival breaking inward, and without his athleticism the repercussions could have been bad. To recover, he was quick to get position and thus found himself engaged in a hot, contested pace with no going back. Overall, Joel Rosario, his jockey in the Fountain of Youth, did not have one of his best days of riding – and that’s another factor to consider when assessing this colt’s chances in the Florida Derby.
Saturday’s race really sets up for Hidden Scroll when considering the projected pace scenario. He has positional speed and should find himself in a favorable front-end trip without nearly the contention or speed that he faced in the Fountain of Youth. On all accounts, he comes into the Florida Derby as the horse to beat.
I can understand this line of thinking; however, having watched this horse since he started racing, I tend to disagree. Let’s go through his career, beginning with his very first start at Saratoga last summer. He was able to win that debut, which is not too common for horses trained by Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey. Following that, he ran a solid second in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes, especially considering he stumbled at the start and was forced to race wide, making a late move behind the front-running winner. The criticism of his form comes mainly from his effort and fourth-place finish as the favorite in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes on Jan. 5 at Gulfstream, his first start at 3. If you want to learn more about taking trip notes, then this is a race to go back and review. He was bumped at the start of the Mucho Macho Man, and to recover jockey John Velazquez positioned him too close to a fast early pace. That decision taxed him late, and played a major role in his finish. He looked capable of moving forward off that race, and move forward he did. Code of Honor projects to be a second choice in the Florida Derby wagering and rightly so, based on his win last out in the Fountain of Youth Stakes against many of the same rivals he will face again. He was the beneficiary of a perfect trip in the Fountain of Youth, saving ground throughout and getting first run at the leaders at the top of the stretch. Watching his recent workout on video, he seems to have come out of the race well and is carrying good form heading into the Florida Derby. Breaking from post position 9 could be a bit problematic in regards to how he’ll work out a trip that will keep him from losing ground at every point of call. But some of those concerns about post position can be mitigated considering that the main pacesetters in the Florida Derby are drawn to his inside.
Bourbon War comes into this race off a solid effort and fast closing second-place finish to Code of Honor in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. His trip that afternoon was nearly “perfect” as he was able to save ground early and had a fast pace to close into. Code of Honor had a similar trip, but was racing a two to four lengths ahead of Bourbon War throughout the early going. Bourbon War did lose some position in mild traffic around the turn, and encountered some more ground loss coming out into the homestretch. He was very late to change leads, though once he did he made a burst in the final furlong, closing the gap with Code of Honor at the wire and galloping out strongly. The projected pace scenario in the Florida Derby does not look to be as fast as it turned out to be in the Fountain of Youth. Bourbon War does have a strong late kick and will be running late under Irad Ortiz Jr.; however, he might be left with too much ground to make up. As a win candidate he still needs to have things go his way. Just as he benefited from the race shape in the Fountain of Youth last out, he also benefited from a great ride from Ortiz to win an allowance race at Gulfstream back in January. When it comes to repeating races, Bourbon War might have something to prove in this spot. Heading into his last two races, he had more recovery time (40+ days), and will need to run a similar effort to his last race again to win on Saturday, but now with only 28 days of rest.
The projected pace scenario for the Florida Derby does not help Current or Harvey Wallbanger either, as both of them share a similar off-the-pace running style with Bourbon War. Current is a decent horse and has some class to him, winning the Grade 3 Dixiana Bourbon Stakes on the turf at Keeneland last year. He comes into this race off of a “better than looked” third-place effort in the Dania Beach Stakes. That said, his speed figures are on the softer side, and would need to make a real move forward in what forecasts to be his first start on a fast dirt track to be a factor. Harvey Wallbanger is another horse who needs to improve to have a shot at winning the Florida Derby. His speed figures are underwhelming compared to his rivals. Even though he did win the Grade 2 Fasig-Tipton Holy Bull Stakes in his previous start, his speed figure for that win was not much higher than the ones he earned as a 2-year-old.
One of the more romantic aspects of horse racing is the chance to win big with a small investment. This horse is an example. There a question regarding why a horse like Maximum Security was in a lower-level maiden claiming race to begin with, given how much talent he’s shown in his young career. One thing worth considering is his pedigree. I am not one to use pedigree much in handicapping, but it might tell a part of the story in this case. Maximum Security is a homebred for Gary and Mary West. He is sired by a horse they stand and campaigned in Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner New Year’s Day. A strategy used by breeders who also race, in order to promote a young sire, is to put their sire’s offspring in races that they can win early. That boosts the progeny winning percentage for their stallion and makes him stand apart from the crowd. This sort of thinking could explain the early race history for Maximum Security. Instead of entering him in the tough maiden special weight races at Gulfstream, his owners ran him in a spot that gave him a better chance of winning first out, hoping that he wouldn’t get claimed. It was a big risk, but one now rewarded.
As far as whether this horse has the ability to compete in the Florida Derby, well, he’s in a tough spot. Going back to his debut on Dec. 20 at Gulfstream, Maximum Security ran a massive race and one he possibly could have regressed from. But instead of regressing, he went the other way in his next two races (both starter optional claimers), steadily improving his speed figures each time. That progression is a concern as he contests the Florida Derby. Eventually, there will be a ceiling for him. Maximum Security would need to run a similar race to his last one to compete against a tough Florida Derby field, and he’s unlikely to benefit from the same race dynamics this time. Coming out of three sprint races, his intent could be to try and get to the lead on Saturday. But he’s coming out of much slower-paced races, and he’s yet to face a horse who has Hidden Scroll’s speed. This colt projects to be forwardly-placed on Saturday, and that could make him vulnerable if he is asked to run faster early on than he’s run before. Combine that pace scenario with a stiff class test and also the additional ground he’s facing as he attempts two turns for the first time, and he has a lot to overcome.
5. “Who do you like to win the Florida Derby?” – @ArizonaDowns
As discussed in the first question, Hidden Scroll is the horse to beat in the Florida Derby. It is clearly his race to lose. He has many advantages in this race, and at 5-2 odds one morning line, he is fair value. Code of Honor is very logical contender once again, and Bourbon War is capable of running late for a share. For a longshot to try and put in the mix, Garter and Tie is worth a stab. His class may be on the weaker side, but from a form and pace scenario perspective, he looks to be sitting on a top race. He has been freshened for this race and may have needed some time to recuperate following his recent starts. He ran a big OptixFIG, and in a “Hard” race according to OptixNOTES, when making his meet debut back on Dec. 8 (a win in the one-mile Smooth Air Stakes). Considering his OptixFIG declined in his two starts following that December effort, perhaps he had not fully recovered. If he’s able to run back to his better races, he can hit the board at a big price.
Horse-by-horse analysis of this race will be available complimentary on OptixEQ.com. Thanks for reading, and as always, good luck, horseplayers.