Sometimes you get Derby prep races that have heavy favorites which tower over a group of hopeless longshots. Other times, you get a wide open field that is a great betting race, but the horses in that race don’t stand a chance on the first Saturday in May. This year’s Florida Derby seems to be a wide open race that does feature some talented runners that could be factors in the Kentucky Derby.
The Grade 1 Florida Derby has been one of the most important three year old races in the spring since its inception in 1952. The list of winners of this race reads like a who’s who of thoroughbred racing. While this race was traditionally held in March, in 2005, they repositioned it to five weeks before the Kentucky Derby. Since then, Barbaro, Big Brown, Orb, Nyquist, Always Dreaming, and Maximum Security won this race before crossing the finish line first in Kentucky. Tiz the Law emphatically won this race in 2020 before going on to win the Belmont Stakes, which was the first leg of the Triple Crown in the crazy COVID year. Scat Daddy, Quality Road, and Constitution won this race during that time span, and while they weren’t winners in the Triple Crown series, they have gone on to have wildly successful careers at stud.
The winners of every major three year old race in the state of Florida will be clashing in this race this year. Simplification is back after winning the Mucho Macho Man on New Years Day and the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth last time out. White Abarrio beat that one in the Holy Bull back in February. Classic Causeway travels South from Tampa after handily winning both the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis in February and the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby Derby in March. Despite all of this combined success, I think there’s a solid chance that the post time favorite is not one of these three runners. Todd Pletcher sends out the well-bred and lightly raced Charge It, coming in off a monster maiden score. I wouldn’t be surprised if the betting public flocked to this son of Tapit. There are also some live longshots, that while improbable, they wouldn’t be a total shock if they were to find a way to get the job done.
Gulfstream Park Saturday 4/2/22, Race 14: The Grade 1 Florida Derby
170 Total Derby points (100/40/20/10)
1- Strike Hard (20-1 ML, 250-1 Circa) : He’s been clearly defeated by three of the major contenders in this race in the past, losing to White Abarrio in October, Simplification in the Mucho Macho Stakes in January, and Classic Causeway in the Sam F. Davis in February. While I concede that he had a tough post in the Sam F. Davis, I haven’t been wowed by either of his two turn races. I think other longshots offer more value.
2 – Classic Causeway (7-2 ML, 11-1 Circa): Trainer Brian Lynch had originally planned to send him to Keeneland to run in the Blue Grass next week, but he altered course and decided to keep him in Florida to make his final start before the Derby. He ran very well in both races at Tampa, easily winning the Sam F. Davis and the Tampa Bay Derby, guaranteeing his spot in the starting gate in Louisville. He’s drawn very well for this race, getting post two, drawing outside of a horse that doesn’t want to go early. He’s been an exceptional gate horse in his career so far, winning the break in every start. Other than Charge It, there’s really no other horse that seems dead set on making the lead. I think he’s fast enough to keep him from clearing from post six, assuming Ortiz wants to be out front. If speed is holding throughout the day, he stands a big chance. One caveat that we talked about last week is whether or not Brian Lynch will have Irad Ortiz change tactics to try to give him the opportunity to try to rate, much like Joel Rosario did aboard Epicenter at the Fair Grounds last weekend. At the end of the day though, this is a Grade 1 race, whereas the Louisiana Derby was a Grade 2, and Classic Causeway already ran a race where he took dirt in his face as a two year old in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. I think he makes the lead, and from there, the only question will be if he’s fast enough to beat these kinds of runners.
3 – Simplification (5-2 ML, 27-2 Circa): The more I go back and watch his last two races, the more impressed I have been with this son of Not This Time. I don’t think things really went his way in either of his Derby points races thus far. He missed the break in the Holy Bull and had to run on from last. Many younger horses would have packed it in, but he kept finding, running on late to be second to White Abarrio. He was shuffled back a bit in the Fountain of Youth and Jose Ortiz found himself behind a wall of horses in traffic down the backstretch. Some horses don’t run well in close quarters like that, but he was perfectly fine as Ortiz waited to be able to tip out. Once the opportunity presented itself, Ortiz let him roll up six wide, and he surged to the front, while being able to avoid the incident when High Oak clipped heels and fell. Even though there isn’t a long run into the first turn when going 1 mile and ⅛ at Gulfstream, there’s enough of a run up where he should ensure a great spot, just off the frontrunners. I think he’ll have every chance to sit the perfect trip, and my hope is that the betting public ends up on Charge It, because that should bump the value for him.
4 – King of Truth (50-1 ML, 300-1 Circa) While he has improved some on the turf and synthetic in his last two starts, he is a far cry from some of the others here. His last main track Beyer Speed Figure was 7, a number which won’t win the majority of $5K maiden claiming races offered around the country. He should be 99-1 and not on any of your tickets.
5 – Pappacap (10-1 ML, 65-1 Circa): While his 2022 campaign can only be described as disappointing to this point, it’s worth noting that he’s the only horse left from the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile this past fall that’s still running meaningful races on the Derby Trail. His effort in the Risen Star last out was not good. Epicenter winning last weekend certainly validates the strength of that race, so perhaps he could be forgiven. However, after some troubled trips as a two year old, he appeared to get a very sweet trip in the Lecomte. He ran a decent race, but he wasn’t good enough to go by Epicenter, despite having every tactical advantage that day. He’s by Gun Runner, so there’s reason to believe that he could continue to develop throughout his three year old season. However, up to this point in his career, he hasn’t run a race good enough to win this race and he’s not necessarily trending up.
6 – Charge It (7-2 ML, 15-1 Circa): He made his debut on January 8th, and he and Volcanic put on a show in a one turn mile maiden special weight race on this course. He came up a neck short to the more experienced runner after dueling for the majority of the race, finishing 12 and ½ lengths in front of the third place finisher. He returned a month later, and decimated a field at the same condition and distance. Pletcher opted to wait for this race for his next start instead of rushing to make a race like the Fountain of Youth or the Tampa Bay Derby. There’s no denying, this is a horse that could be special. He’s sired by Tapit out of an Indian Charlie mare, so there’s definitely reason to believe that he can continue to improve at longer distances. He’s worked like a horse that is leading up to running a good race, and leading rider Luis Saez will retain the mount. My concern is that he’s facing some horses with more racing experience and more two turn experience. This field is much deeper than what he’s faced before and this is a big ask. On top of that, I have a suspicion that he’ll wind up as the post time favorite. When you look at the Futures Odds from Circa, he’s a similar price to Simplification. That one is mathematically guaranteed to have a spot in the starting gate for the Derby, whereas Charge It has to finish first or second to be assured of a spot in the gate. As a fan, I’ll be cheering for him, but as a handicapper, I think the value lies elsewhere.
7 – White Abarrio (3-1 ML, 20-1 Circa): Does this son of Race Day like racing on this oval or what? He’s won all three of his career races on this track by a combined total of 15 and ¼ lengths. Upon review of his effort in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, I thought his race was better than it looked on paper, shifting over from post eight to try to secure position after the break and then being close to a hot pace. He fought back to hold third that day in what turned out to be one of the key races of the year. There’s no doubt that his job got a lot easier in the Holy Bull when Simplification missed the break. There wasn’t a ton of other speed signed on, so Gaffalione was able to secure a great spot, despite breaking from post eight in a race where the starting gate is positioned at the start of the first turn. Saffie Joseph opted to sit out the Fountain of Youth in favor of this spot, which is no doubt a calculated risk. He’s had five official works since the Holy Bull and looks to be doing well going into the race. Of the four big ones in this spot, he might be the one that gets overlooked, causing his odds to float up. At 4-1 or better, I think he could offer very good value.
8 – Cajun’s Magic (30-1 ML, 300-1 Circa): He’s a graduate of the Florida Stallion Series, running a big race to be second to Octane in the In Reality Division back in September, while going two turns for the first time. He came back for his next start in the Holy Bull in February and ran a respectable 5th that afternoon, validating his big effort that ended his two year old campaign. There’s reason to believe that he can step forward off his last start, as he seems to be comfortable running longer despite a pedigree that leans to one turn races. Unless he takes a big jump forward, I feel like the bottom of the exotics is the ceiling for this son of Cajun Breeze, but as the longshots go in this race, he’s one of the better ones.
9 – O Captain (20-1 ML, 175-1 Circa): Speaking of longshots, this son of Carpe Diem certainly added some serious spice to the trifecta in the Fountain of Youth when he was flying late to get up for third that afternoon when sent off at 87-1. He was making his first start in a race longer than six furlongs that day and his first start since January 1st. It remains to be seen if he can duplicate or improve off that effort when facing a tougher bunch. I’ll be interested to see how he’s bet in this race, because I find him more interesting that Pappacap, who is half of his morning line figure. I think he’s another one that has the potential to sneak into the bottom of the exotics here.
10- Clapton (30-1 ML, 300-1 Circa): He’s a Florida bred who is the most experienced runner of this group, making his 10th career start this afternoon. He’s run a few strong races in state bred N1X allowance races of late, but this would be a huge step up in class for a horse that doesn’t seem to be on that trajectory. He’s not one for me here.
11- Steal Sunshine (30-1 ML, 300-1 Circa): This gradually improving son of Constitution makes his stakes debut after losing to some nice allowance winners in his last two starts. While he’s trending in the right direction, he hasn’t been close to clearing the N1X condition yet, and his post may really be a hindrance for him. I’ll pass on this one today.
The verdict: 3-2-7-8
I see Classic Causeway and Charge It being the duo that will really decide what happens in this race. I think Irad Ortiz wants the lead with Classic Causeway, and he’s fast enough to get that spot. Luis Saez probably wants to be forwardly placed with Charge It at the very least. If Saez pulls back, I think that makes Classic Causeway very dangerous. If he is headstrong, I think he could duel them both into submission.
I think either scenario sets this race up for the battle tested, Simplification. I’m a sucker for a horse that runs no matter what, and he is that kind of horse. He looked to be the lone speed in the Holy Bull, but he missed the break. He had to make a sustained rally from the back of the pack to secure second. He was shuffled around a bit on the turn, behind a wall of horses and in a tight spot in the Fountain of Youth. He still found a way out and rolled down the center of the track to win. He can be his own worst enemy at times, but either way, I think he’s going to run his race.
White Abarrio loves the Gulfstream Park main track and makes a lot of sense, especially if he winds up being overlooked in the wagering. If he can avoid being wide into the first turn, he’s another likely player here. Both Cajun’s Magic and O Captain are the two longshots that could be worth backing up with and putting them underneath in the vertical exotics.
Each week, we’ll have an update on horses and races from the previous week that may produce starters for the 148th Kentucky Derby on May 7th, 2022. Current futures odds from Circa or Caesars-William Hill will be provided as they are available. Feel free to reach out on Twitter @EricSolomon718.
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