2019 Florida Derby and Gulfstream Park Oaks Preview

The Florida Derby, particularly, has long been a top-flight Kentucky Derby prep.  Its importance has been as strong as ever in recent years.  In the six editions of the Kentucky Derby since the points system started, three Florida Derby winners have earned the roses a month later, and as usual several of this year's top contenders will take their final tune-up in Hallandale Beach.

The day's card also features the Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2), a 100-point race for fillies hoping to get to the Kentucky Oaks in May.  We will discuss both the Florida Derby and the Gulfstream Park Oaks in detail, as well as share a grid with our selections for all seven of the day's stakes races.

Selections for the Cutler Bay S., Sanibel Island S., Sand Springs S., and Pan American S. are made for turf only.

Race 8: Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2), three-year-old fillies, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 3:00pm 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; nowadays, it is run back at its previous 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.  That means most of the field will get at least a few points, as only seven fillies will line up in the starting gate. The field is stratified, with three logical contenders and four who would need a serious step forward to contend with the top three contenders.

Among the three major contenders, the one likely to be the longest price among them is not only the one with the cutest name, but (admittedly more relevant when handicapping a race) the one likely to get things her own way on the pace.  COOKIE DOUGH may have drawn the outside -- but it's only a field of seven. Especially with SHACKLETTE (who had some speed earlier in her career) finding her best form now that she has begun to rally from a few lengths off the pace,COOKIE  DOUGH should be sharp enough to get that frontrunning trip she loves so much.  That's always a good place to be at Gulfstream, perhaps even moreso on a big day.  (Though, if SHACKLETTE decides to gun it anyway, COOKIE DOUGH isn't sunk, since she also has a passing gear.)  The point in her form cycle appeals, as well; she ran a good second in the Davona Dale (G2) on March 2, but that was her first race since last September, and her trainer Stanley Gold wins at 17% with a positive ROI with horses coming second off the lay.  She also has every right to stretch out to the mile and a sixteenth; she won a Florida-sired stakes at the distance last year.  All in all, COOKIE DOUGH has a real chance at a sweet price.

DUNBAR ROAD cedes experience to all of her foes; she has only raced once so far.  But, the debut was a good one.  In a maiden special weight at Gulfstream on the Fountain of Youth undercard, the daughter of Quality Road stalked the pace and drew off to an easy victory.  It was the sort of effort that, this time in the year, justifies trying her straight in an Oaks prep.  Trainer Chad Brown is a 26% winner with last-out maiden winners, and has a sharp penchant for knowing which ones can be stepped up to stakes. Given the running style she showed last time, she should be able to get a comfortable spot close to the pace.  And, the pedigree gives DUNBAR ROAD every reason to stretch out from the one-turn mile to a two-turn mile and a sixteenth.

POINT OF HONOR will have more running to do late than either COOKIE DOUGH or DUNBAR ROAD.  Still, POINT OF HONOR certainly figures.  The daughter of Curlin broke her maiden easily over fast Gulfstream Park dirt going the same distance as the Gulfstream Park Oaks, so the course and distance pose no questions.  She also has built on that debut maiden win with some stakes experience, an easy victory in the Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.  She keeps Javier Castellano in the irons from that last-out win, and has posted regular drills at Palm Beach Downs through the month of March.

Selections:

#7 COOKIE DOUGH (7/2)
#6 DUNBAR ROAD (8/5)
#3 POINT OF HONOR (9/5)

Longshot:  It's hard to like any of the longshots as win candidates, but for one that has the best chance of bringing a surprise to an intra-race exotic, #4 BELLA CIAO (15/1) appeals. She comes off a solid second-place finish over the course, and keeps hot-riding Luis Saez in the irons from that effort. Though BELLA CIAO's one effort over the mile and a sixteenth trip wasn't good, it came last fall in a Grade 1 at Keeneland.  She has had some time to mature since then, and she has enough two-turn pedigree to suggest she can stretch out. Expect her to sit midpack and do her better running late; it may not be enough to get her all the way there, but on her best day, she can invade the trifecta or superfecta at a price.

Race 14: Xpressbet Florida Derby (G1), three-year-olds, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 6:30pm 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.  Fifteen 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), Orb (2013), Nyquist (2016), and Always Dreaming (2017).

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.

The 2012 Florida Derby also had a local flavour.  Take Charge Indy, owned by Chicago-area locals Chuck and Maribeth Sandford, won the race wire to wire.  He had graduated at first asking over the Arlington main track the year before, and finished second in the Arlington-Washington Futurity (G3) behind Shared Property.   Though he has no sons or daughters in the Florida Derby or the Gulfstream Park Oaks, his son Long Range Toddy punched his ticket to the Kentucky Derby when he won a division of the Rebel Stakes (G2).


Orb takes over in the 2013 Florida Derby.  Shug McGaughey will try to win the race again with Code of Honor.

Once again, 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.  The race drew a field of 11 to vie for those spoils.

Unlike the Holy Bull, which was laden with so much speed that it would set up beautifully for a closer, the pace should be more modest here.  Yes, Jaime Mejia sends out an overmatched speed horse -- but it's not Gladiator King.  (Gladiator King's biggest prize for winning the Hutcheson Stakes (G3) last Saturday?  A weekend off.)  Instead, he sends out HARD BELLE -- not quite as fast or classy an adversary for the likes of HIDDEN SCROLL or MAXIMUM SECURITY to have to fend off.  That's good news for both of them.

Much has been made about HIDDEN SCROLL getting burned up in the pace last time out -- all things considered, he ran as well as he could have, staying on to finish a credible fourth despite battling on such hot fractions early.  He has since gotten a rider switch to Javier Castellano, and much of the buzz since the Fountain of Youth has been about getting HIDDEN SCROLL to relax off of horses in workouts.  But, it's hard to trust a horse will stalk until you actually see it in the race.  The rail draw may also prove tough for that strategy: though the shortest way around the track comes around the fence, it may also force his hand to go to the front.  Still, with a less formidable longshot to burn him out, he may not have to go as fast, and he has a far better chance to be around late.

Still?  With another horse certain to gun it from the gate, I'd rather take a not-quite-favourite who has been able to sit off the pace in a race over a chalk who has only shown one way to go in the afternoon.  Enter MAXIMUM SECURITY.  This son of New Year's Day has class to prove: not only is this his first time in a stakes race, but his other starts have come in a $16K maiden claimer and then a pair of $50K starter-optional claimers.  And yet?  He has crushed those foes in actual racehorse time.  Even better, in one of those victories, he stalked the pace and took over.  These all bode positively for his entrance into stakes company.  MAXIMUM SECURITY also has to prove he can get this trip, as his longest start to date has been at seven furlongs, and now he steps up to nine.  But, being by New Year's Day out of a dam who has produced route winners already, it isn't off base to think he will stay the trip.  If MAXIMUM SECURITY can bring his best under Luis Saez, who couldn't be finishing the Gulfstream meet any hotter, there's a good chance we will see two copies of Gary and Mary West's hot pink and black silks in the Derby starting gate.

The top two finishers in the Fountain of Youth, BOURBON WAR and CODE OF HONOR, are in a tight battle for the third spot.  They're about equal in my eyes: the "B" horses, if you like to do the Steve Crist-style ABC charts for multi-race wagers.  Both of them have fine pedigrees for nine furlongs.  Both will be coming from out of it -- probably not the clouds, but they'll have to run down the speed, and they won't get quite as much pace as they did in the Fountain of Youth.  Still, BOURBON WAR has slightly more upside this time around.  CODE OF HONOR had the rail last time; this time, he drew near the outside.  BOURBON WAR, on the other hand, drew the same 4 gate as last time. BOURBON WAR also doesn't have to be as far back as he was last time out -- hearken back to allowance win at Gulfstream two starts ago, when he only sat four or five lengths back, rallied into a pace that didn't fall apart, and won with confidence over eventual Sunland Park Derby (G3) winner Cutting Humor.  With that, BOURBON WAR has a right to improve over a Fountain of Youth performance that was already strong.

Selections:

#7 MAXIMUM SECURITY (9/2)
#1 HIDDEN SCROLL (5/2)
#4 BOURBON WAR (7/2)

Longshot:  #11 GARTER AND TIE (15/1) has freshened since running sixth in the Holy Bull almost two months ago; that's good, since he does his better work when fresh.  Though he is mired on the outside, his stalking-to-midpack style should give him some leeway to find a good spot before getting hung wide into the turn.  That will be key -- both because pace will likely hold well in this race, and because he doesn't do his best work when dropped farther back like he was in the Holy Bull.  He also has to prove himself at two turns, as so far his best tries have come going one.  But, you'll get the price to bet he will fire off the bench: for a horse who loves Gulfstream so much, it may be worth putting GARTER AND TIE in the picture at about twice the 8/1 price he was last time he raced.

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Below are all of Nicolle Neulist's picks for the stakes races on Fountain of Youth day at Gulfstream Park. This will be updated as they finish handicapping the card. If you have questions about the logic behind any of these picks, please leave a comment or tweet us at @picksponderings!

For anyone on a mobile device or another browser that struggles with embedded spreadsheets, read the standalone copy here.

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