This weekend, the Road to the Kentucky Derby and the Road to the Kentucky Oaks gets even more serious. After a winter full of ten-point races and fifty-point races, the stakes get even higher. Over the course of the weekend, five 100-point races take place: three for open company pointing toward the Derby, and two for the fillies targeting the Oaks. Here, we focus on the races at Gulfstream: the Florida Derby (GI) and the Gulfstream Park Oaks (GII). Paul Mazur takes a close look at the two points racing going on at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, the Louisiana Derby (GII) and the Fair Grounds Oaks (GII). Finally, I discuss the United Arab Emirates Derby among my Meydan previews.
Both the Florida Derby and the Gulfstream Park Oaks are scheduled for Saturday, March 28 at Gulfstream Park. Post times are approximate, given Gulfstream Park's rich history of delayed post times. Both races will be streamed live on Gulfstream Park's website (as is all racing at Gulfstream). Horse Racing Radio Network will stream the audio for these races, as well as nine other stakes races at Gulfstream Park and Fair Grounds, between 4:00pm EDT and 7:00 EDT. That stream will be broadcast on Sirius 93, XM 208, and the Horse Racing Radio Network website.
Morning lines for the Gulfstream Park Oaks were not available at the time this was originally published. That information will be added when it becomes available.
Updated on March 26 to include lines for all races.
Race 12: Gulfstream Park Oaks (GII), three-year-old fillies, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 5:35pm EDT
The Gulfstream Park Oaks was originally run as the Bonnie Miss Stakes, starting in 1971. The race was inaugurated as a seven-furlong turf race open to ages three and up. It was restricted to three-year-old fillies only in 1974, and again from 1977 to the present day. It was also moved from the grass to the dirt for good that same year. In its first decade of existence it wavered between being a sprint and a route, but was run at 1 1/16 miles from 1981 through 2000. It was a nine furlong race from 2001 through 2014; this year, it reverts to that eight and a half furlong distance. Throughout its history, three winners of the Gulfstream Park Oaks have gone on to win the Kentucky Oaks: Dispute (1993), Open Mind (1989), and Hall of Fame inductee Davona Dale (1979). Davona Dale has been memorialized at Gulfstream Park; the local prep to this race has been named after her since 1987.
This year's edition of the Gulfstream Park Oaks offers a $250,000 purse, as well as 100, 40, 20, and 10 Kentucky Oaks points to the top four finishers.
Devil May Care, winning the 2010 Bonnie Miss Stakes for trainer Todd Pletcher. Pletcher has won four of the last five renewals of this race.
In the last Kentucky Oaks prep at Gulfstream, EKATI'S PHAETON had just enough her way on the front end to hold on for a mile. The going got tough late, but sheer gameness got her nose on the wire just ahead of BIRDATTHEWIRE and ESKENFORMONEY in a blanket finish. In the Gulfstream Park Oaks, look for the tables to turn on EKATI'S PHAETON. The trip should not be so easy for her with fellow speed types HOLYWELL, CRISTINA'S JOURNEY, and DEVINE AIDA in the group, and ESKENFORMONEY likely to force the issue from close behind. Add to that the fact that her last out was such a leap forward from her previous body of work, and a regression looks likely. The Davona Dale was the right time to be on EKATI'S PHAETON; this is the time to be off her. With all that speed, look for it to set up well for a runner coming off the pace. BIRDATTHEWIRE is the best of that group, and this looks like her race to lose. She has shown herself to be a closing type, and is the fastest and classiest closer in this race by far. She drew outside, but with only eight horses in the field, that should not be an issue. Though she ran a career top last out, she has been improving her speeds in a sane enough progression to suggest she may not bounce badly; even a slight turn back from her speed last out should be competitive in this crowd. She is working well leading into this start, and Irad Ortiz returns to the irons. BIRDATTHEWIRE is the one to beat. Her closest competition here comes from a barn that has owned this race in recent years: ESKENFORMONEY. She is trained by Todd Pletcher, who has won this race every year since 2010 with the exception of 2012. (It would have been a bit difficult for Pletcher to win that year; he did not have an entrant.) ESKENFORMONEY has found her stride since being switched from the turf to the dirt, and has not been beaten by more than half a length in four main-track starts. She tends to be forwardly placed, and should have first run at the speed brigade assuming she does not get too engaged with them early. That is the biggest worry with ESKENFORMONEY, given how close she tends to sit to the pace. Still, if rider Javier Castellano can get her to relax just off the pacesetters, she should get eight and a half furlongs with no problem. ESKENFORMONEY is another, like BIRDONTHEWIRE, who has been showing a steady improvement over her last few starts, and she stands the best chance of anyone on the front end to be hanging around late. Finally, a stablemate of BIRDATTHEWIRE's has some upside. No, not CRISTINA'S JOURNEY -- there should be too much pace for her, and she has been MIA since her Golden Rod (GII) flop on November 29. This refers to the other other Dale Romans trainee, SWEET SWINGIN. She was a well-beaten second in the Herecomesthebride last out, her first time going two turns. That day, she had an excuse: not only was she running through slop, but the weather was so bad at Gulfstream that day that racing was cancelled shortly thereafter. She had already shown in November that mud was not her forte. In her two previous starts before that, both over fast Gulfstream dirt, she ran better, and showed speed in the neighbourhood of what she needs today. Her midpack style should suit this race well, as replete as it is with speed. Romans also tends to have his trainees ready to run their best in their second route race; in that circumstance, he wins a quarter of the time with positive ROI. With as much money is likely to go on the top trio from the Davona Dale, SWEET SWINGIN should have a good shot at a square price.
#8 BIRDATTHEWIRE (3/1)
#6 ESKENFORMONEY (5/2)
#2 SWEET SWINGIN (6/1)
Longshot: Unseen since a belated fourth in the Delta Princess (GIII), #7 DANESSA DELUXE (12/1) had entered the Davona Dale, but was a trainer scratch on race day. Since that day she has fired off a pair of works at Gulfstream Park West that mean business, for a Jorge Navarro barn that wins at 35% off lays of longer than three months, with positive ROI. She does add blinkers. With as much early speed as signed on into the race, the hope is that they were added for focus and not for speed since the off-pace style she has shown in her previous races makes her attractive here. Still, she could not be in more capable hands than her new rider John Velazquez. If DANESSA DELUXE has grown into herself a bit since last fall, she could hit the board at a big price.
Race 14: Besilu Stables Florida Derby (GI), three-year-olds, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 6:40m EDT
Instituted in 1952, the Florida Derby has been limited to three year olds and run at 1 1/8 miles over the Gulfstream Park dirt ever since. Through its history, the Florida Derby has been a rich source of Kentucky Derby winners. Thirteen Florida Derby winners have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby: Needles (1956), Tim Tam (1958), Carry Back (1961), Northern Dancer (1964), Forward Pass (1968), Spectacular Bid (1979), Swale (1984), Unbridled (1990), Thunder Gulch (1995), Monarchos (2001), Barbaro (2006), Big Brown (2008), and Orb (2013). Though the 1966 edition of the race did not produce a Kentucky Derby winner, it remains of particular local interest. Williamston Kid had gotten the best of Illinois-bred Abe's Hope in 1965 in the Hawthorne Juvenile Stakes. They met again the following year in the Florida Derby. Abe's Hope crossed the wire first, but was disqualified to fourth for ducking into Sky Guy at the eighth pole. This left his old nemesis Williamston Kid on top once again, winning the race at the longest odds in Florida Derby history: 90/1.
This year's edition of the race offers a purse of $1,000,000, as well as 100, 40, 20, and 10 Road to the Kentucky Derby points for its top four finishers.
Barbaro gets the best of Sharp Humor late to take the 2006 Florida Derby. Barbaro would go on to win the Kentucky Derby.
Races do not come much more stratified than this. There's class-proven UPSTART, there's class-possible IT'SAKNOCKOUT, MATERIALITY, and AMI'S FLATTER, and there are the likely overmatched others. Two of those others, JACK TRIPP and QUIMET, look particularly likely to be pace factors early. However, JACK TRIPP has shown a track record of folding and fading whenever he faces particularly classy company, and cannot be trusted to hold his speed against the better types in this race. QUIMET has gone a mile and an eighth in his last two races, and though he should be better placed early than he was in the Islamorada last out, this race turned up tougher.
UPSTART will go off the clear favourite, and deservedly so. He is the fastest horse in the field, and has not fired a clunker in six lifetime starts so far. He can stalk close to the pace, or bide his time midpack for a while. He can survive near a fast pace as he did in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, or stalk a slower pace and run off as he did in the Holy Bull. He loves the Gulfstream track. Neither his breeding nor his track performance suggest that nine furlongs will be a bridge too far. In short, the fast and versatile UPSTART has every reason to win this race, and seeing anyone else do so will be a surprise.
Among the others, AMI'S FLATTER holds the most appeal. He has been at Tampa Bay Downs for his last two races, and showed a marked improvement with both blinkers and Lasix added for the first time in the Tampa Bay Derby (GII). His speed figures suggest he has more to run back to, and his only race at Gulfstream was a solid second in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes three starts back. That shows he likes the track. He has run well from close to the pace (as in his maiden win) or from midpack, giving him some flexibility depending on how fast things go early. The works are solid going into this race, and he gets a switch to 25% rider Javier Castellano. He looks well set to take another step forward here, and should hit the board at a solid price. Between MATERIALITY and IT'SAKNOCKOUT, MATERIALITY gets the nod for the third slot. They have similar virtues beyond their mere presence in the Pletcher barn. Both horses are undefeated (though IT'SAKNOCKOUT has the Gulfstream stewards to thank for that), and both have shown an affinity for the course. IT'SAKNOCKOUT will likely be the shorter price of this Pletcher pair, but MATERIALITY is the one who is proven at the 1 1/8 mile distance. He overcame trouble caused by his stablemate Stanford to score a convincing victory in the Islamorada Handicap last out. The biggest question about MATERIALITY is the class rise here, but his speed puts him right in it and his ability to handle adversity cannot hurt matters. Pacewise, he should be stalking off of the likes of JACK TRIPP and QUIMET early, and has a good shot at first run on them. With this much upside, and MATERIALITY likely to go off at a better price than his bigger-name stablemate IT'SAKNOCKOUT, he looks more attractive here.
#9 UPSTART (8/5)
#1 AMI'S FLATTER (8/1)
#7 MATERIALITY (7/2)
Longshot: This looks likely to be a four-horse race, but if anyone has a chance to run a decent race at Williamston Kid-like odds, #6 MY POINT EXACTLY (30/1) could. The problem with most of the long shots here is that we know what we are getting, and they have almost all shown in recent races that they are a cut below. QUIMET, particularly, had a bit of appeal since he had at least gone nine furlongs twice. However, he has shown himself to be a cut below weaker company than this. At least MY POINT EXACTLY could be better than his PP lines suggest. He has not raced since the beginning of September, and has had about half a year to grow and progress from what he was last summer. One of those wins last summer came at a mile over the Gulfstream main, showing some affinity for the track. This son of Concord Point merits a look in the paddock or the post parade. If he looks strong and sharp, why not take a chance? He should be stalking in touch early, perfect for a race in which there is not a large quantity of early speed. He will be the longest shot on the board (with the possible exception of DEKABRIST), and runs for a barn that has placed some viable long shots in graded stakes races before. After all, William Kaplan scored the 26/1 upset in the Davona Dale with Ekati's Phaeton.
All videos courtesy of Youtube.
You can take "Picks & Ponderings" with you anytime, anywhere. You can get Twitter updates @picksponderings for on-scene reports from Hawthorne Race Course. And you can get "Picks and Ponderings" in your e-mail by typing your email address in the box and clicking "Create Subscription." It's a FREE service, and you'll never get any unwanted spam.