Re-cap of the Florida Derby, by Brian Nadeau
There were a lot of questions answered by a couple different horses on Saturday, but sadly only one is likely going to get a chance at Churchill Downs. Quality Road consolidated his huge Fountain of Youth win with another big performance, turning back the previously undefeated Dunkirk turning for home and pulling clear to a 1 ¾-length win in track record time. It was a distant 6 lengths back to Theregoesjojo in third.
Anyone who saw the ESPN telecast was probably taken aback by the comments of the usually stoic Todd Pletcher, Dunkirk’s trainer. Pletcher ripped the track superintendent for juicing up the racing strip on Saturday and making it extremely speed-favoring, while saying he would have gone to Aqueduct and run in the Wood Memorial if he knew that was going to be the case. Sadly, he was 100% correct. There were two track records on Saturday and all seven dirt races were won by horses within one-length of the lead at the pace call. When Pletcher saw maidens go in 1:09.24 to open the card, I’m sure he knew he was in deep water. The trend in racing over the past decade has been to make the race track a lightning strip on big race days (see Monarchos’ 2001 Kentucky Derby win and the undercard as well). The fact that Quality Road “only” ran a 103 Beyer while setting a track record basically tells you how juiced up the surface was.
But let’s not overlook Quality Road’s effort. He stalked the early lead of 77-1 Casey’s On Call, put that one away on the backstretch and then turned Dunkirk back turning for home. Sure, the racetrack had a lot to do with him repelling Dunkirk’s rally, but let’s not forget Quality Road had a lot of question marks going into the 9-furlong race. First and foremost, he had never been two turns and was coming off a career top in the Fountain of Youth–yet there he was in deep stretch pulling clear. This was a major statement from a lightly raced horse that should have a big say come the First Saturday in May. Trainer Jimmy Jerkens indicated Quality Road will train up to the Derby and the five-week break–once thought taboo–has worked well over the past few seasons, as has winning the Florida Derby (Barbaro and Big Brown turned the Florida Derby-Kentucky Derby double the past few years).
All things considered, Dunkirk ran out of his skin on Saturday and it’s a shame that the $150,000 in graded stakes money he earned will probably not crack the Derby top-20. He rated 8 lengths behind the leaders, made a wide, menacing move turning for home and might have actually poked a nose in front in the middle of the turn. He was miles ahead of Theregoesjojo in third and this effort stamped him as a top, top 3-year-old. Oh, and all this took place exactly 63 days removed from his career debut. I openly questioned Dunkirk going into this race, but this performance left little doubt that he’s among the best of his generation. Pletcher has reiterated that this will be Dunkirk’s last start before the Derby and that he will train him with the idea they will run if they can.
The aforementioned Theregoesjojo got a dream trip stalking the leaders and flattened out a bit. Ken McPeek indicated he might start once more in an effort to secure earnings, but it’s pretty evident he’s not a 10-furlong horse, much less a 9-furlong one. He’s also getting further removed from his allowance win over Quality Road earlier in the meet.