Gulfstream Park: The GI, $1 million Florida Derby at 1 1/8 miles
#1 Shanghai Bobby: The reigning 2yo champ enters off a two-month break after suffering his first career defeat when second to fellow rival Itsmyluckyday in the local GIII Holy Bull and will try to prove he’s got the stamina to be a top class long distance 3yo. Son of Harlan’s Holiday once again took the worst of it from the draw; as was the case in the Holy Bull, he could be the one forced to do the dirty work and lead them from the rail, which ultimately proved his undoing last time. Still, he did run a fine second in his first start since winning the BC Juvenile in November, and the Holy Bull was run in track record time, so it’s not like he regressed in his 3yo bow. It’s worth noting he’s short on Derby points (24) and that even if he finishes third here, he might not make the big race, so you have to think Pletcher has him primed to run as big as he can. On paper he’s the fastest of the proven route runners, but wiring this group might not be his best path to victory, so you wonder if Rosie doesn’t try and take back a pinch and get him to the outside. Of course, any way she plays it, she’ll likely have ‘Lucky glued to her flank, which is far from an enviable spot to be in; willing to make him prove it from a tough draw.
#2 Pick Of The Litter: Lightly raced runner is the first of two for Romans, and he sure looked good breaking his maiden over the track and distance in his last, when he ran off to a 7 ½-length win in his main track debut. Of course, he beat just three rivals that day in an off-the-turfer and steps way up in class, but that sure was one heck of a main track debut, wasn’t it? On class he’s out of his element, but on talent he ranks much higher than a few in here; worth remembering his name down the road.
#3 Itsmyluckyday: Plesa charge entered the Holy Bull looking to prove his romp in the local GP Derby wasn’t a fluke, and he did that and then some, defeating ‘Bobby by two lengths while setting a track record in the process. Son of Lawyer Ron has been freshened since and hasn’t missed a beat in his AM drills, and with just 10 Derby points on his slate, he’s potentially cranked to the gills to run a biggie, as this will be his final start before a prospective trip to Churchill Downs. As in the Holy Bull, he drew outside ‘Bobby, which gives him a huge tactical advantage, as he’s likely to sit a dream trip just off the inside speed. Local lover is two-for-two over the strip, and when the best horse in the race figures to sit the best trip in the race, you really can’t do anything less than head straight to the windows; imposing and deserving favorite.
#4 Pontiff: The second from Romans picks one heck of an ambitious spot to try and pick up his first career win, as he enters 0-for-2, though he’s yet to go two turns on a fast main track. Pedigree pundits will note he’s a half-brother to Pulpit, but that monster was a perfect three-for-three heading into this race back in 1997, with a win in the Fountain of Youth to boot, as opposed to a maiden with two starts, so the similarities end there; here’s hoping he gets home safely.
#5 Frac Daddy: McPeek colt garnered a lot of attention when he closed out his 2yo season running second, beaten just a neck, to Uncaptured in CD’s GII Jockey Club but was a major disappointment when beaten 16 ¾ lengths in the Holy Bull in his 3yo debut. Willing to give him a pass that day, though, as he came unglued prior to the start and was completely washed out and was basically a beaten horse before the gates even sprung. His juvenile season was filled with potential and we’ve seen horses run duds prior to the Florida Derby and come right back and run huge (Shackleford, anyone?), so there’s a chance he can rebound, but he also meets a mighty salty group that are going in a much better direction than he is right now; tough to tout.
#6 Orb: Streaking Janney/Phipps homebred took advantage of suicidal splits in the local GII Fountain of Youth last month to nail hotshot Violence on the line and announce his presence on the Triple Crown trail for Shug. There’s little doubt the hot splits paved the way for him that day (not to mention that Violence exited the race with a career-ending injury), but it’s tough to close going long on this main track, so he deserves a ton of credit, especially since he did it into pedestrian fractions in winning an optional claimer over the track and distance in January. Son of Malibu Moon grabbed 50 points in winning his GII, so there’s no need to be overly ambitious today, and with a less-than-heated pace shaping up, you could see him rallying mildly to set him up for the big dance in Louisville; keying underneath.
#7 Indy’s Illusion: Intriguing Fipke homebred has a dream pedigree (A.P. Indy out of a Mr. Prospector mare) and has improved in both local starts for Tagg, who now looks to see just what he has with the Derby five weeks away. The naysayers will mention he’s yet to win in two optional claimers here, so this GI seems like an ambitious placement, but don’t forget he was just 3-¾ lengths behind Orb in an January AOC, so what if he jumps up and runs huge like that rival did in the Fountain of Youth? No doubt there’s still work to be done, but if you’re trying to beat the big three, this is your guy; the gut says he’s here to run the race of his life.
#8 Merit Man: Freaky fast sprinter couldn’t make the front in the local seven-furlong Hutcheson in February and (after a hint of trouble on the backstretch) checked home a modest fourth a month after winning the six-furlong Spectacular Bid over the track. Hess removes the blinkers in an effort to get him to settle a bit in his route debut, but on paper he’s still the fastest horse in the race, so at the very least he’s got to be on or just off the lead from this wide draw. Getting nine furlongs against some of the best of his generation after never having won past six furlongs is no easy task, but the track is usually souped up for speed on these big days, so he might just be able to outrun his odds, though a win is likely out of reach; figures to keep them honest early before tiring late.
#9 Are You Kidding Me: Turf/synthetic runner picks a mighty tough spot to make his conventional dirt debut, but it’s not like Attfield throws his horses to the wolves, so you might want to give him a second look. Son of sprinter Run Away and Hide has shown a nice stalking gear in his races but might find himself a bit further back on the main track today, but at least he’s shown he can pass horses in the stretch. His comeback earlier this month at Tampa Bay Downs on the turf was solid, as he was beaten just a nose by Noble Tune, who is one of the best 3yo turfers in the country, so you know he’s got talent, but this is one tall order; midpack finish seems his ceiling.
#10 Narvaez: Son of Holy Bull was a much improved commodity when he added Lasix and dead-heated for the win in a one-turn optional claimer here last month, but this wide draw, not to mention the GI company, really compromises his chances. No doubt he’s on the improve and could move forward second off the layoff, but this seems way too much too soon in his stakes debut; not seeing it.
#7 Indy’s Illusion