Gulfstream Park’s Championship Meet culminates this Saturday with Florida Derby day. The Florida Derby always draws interest — and two of its last four winners have gone on to wear the roses. With the year’s Derby picture as fuzzy as it is, such a recently live prep will draw even more interest.
In addition, its spur of the Oaks trail meets its end as well, with the Gulfstream Park Oaks. With Unique Bella out of the Kentucky Oaks, that picture has been blown wide open. Will a horse from the Gulfstream Park Oaks make her breakout here?
Florida is not the only active spur of the three-year-old trail this weekend. In a separate piece, Picks and Ponderings also looks at the pair of three-year-old races in New Orleans on Saturday, the Louisiana Derby (G2) and the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2).
Race 11: Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2), three-year-old fillies, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 4:57pm 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. Last year’s winner, Go Maggie Go, fell short in the Oaks — second behind Cathryn Sophia. However, she came back next out to win the Black-Eyed Susan (G2) at Pimlico.
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. The race drew a field of nine — though SUMMER LUCK is unlikely to run, and this analysis was done with the expectation that she will scratch.
NONNA BELLA makes her stakes debut here, after winning her debut and then winning again in a first-level allowance. In that allowance victory, she beat Corporate Queen (a serious Fair Grounds Oaks contender) by a length. Lightly raced, NONNA BELLA has room for further improvement. Both of those starts came at Gulfstream, so she can handle the course, though both came at one turn. Still, NONNA BELLA should be able to stretch to a mile and a sixteenth easily enough: she is a daughter of Stay Thirsty (a Travers-winning, Belmont-placed Bernardini son) out of Nonna Mia (a mare whose only two other progeny to race, Outwork and Nonna’s Boy, are stakes winners at two turns). On pace, NONNA BELLA stands to be forward, but has shown a pressing gear that may come in useful if SPRING MIST or CONQUEST SORCEROR start sharply. All in all, Todd Pletcher has won four editions of the Gulfstream Park Oaks, and NONNA BELLA has him well loaded to win a fifth.
They say, if you didn’t go to the wedding, don’t go to the funeral. TEQUILITA’s 14/1 odds made the Forward Gal (G2) her “wedding”…and though this is the shorter-priced “funeral”, she still deserves a look in a field that isn’t all that deep beyond her, NONNA BELLA, and SALTY. After all, she comes into the Gulfstream Park Oaks on a three-win streak, including a victory in the Forward Gal last out. However, the Forward Gal was almost two months ago. Though trainer speak suggests that the plan was to skip the Davona Dale, the worktab casts a question there: she posted a drill on February 18, then not again until March 10. Still, she has been working regularly since March 10, including a bullet four-furlong drill (fastest of 95) on March 25 at Palm Meadows. TEQUILITA showed early speed in her maiden breaker, but a stalking gear in her last two starts. She keeps Luis Saez from that Forward Gal win. This will be her first shot at two turns, but being by Union Rags out of a mare who won going a mile, she has enough of a shot to get this distance.
SALTY has some tables to turn on the top selection: she and NONNA BELLA debuted in the same maiden special weight, and NONNA BELLA won by a neck. Still, that race was good enough that Gary Barber privately bought a share in SALTY, and sent her packing to the barn of Mark Casse. She validated that investment next out, in a seven-furlong maiden special, with a daylight victory. Both of those starts happened at Gulfstream, so the surface is not a question. Two turns is a question with SALTY, as she has not gone past seven furlongs yet. Quality Road on top is a positive sign, but the bottom of her pedigree is less so. Her dam, Theycallmeladyluck, was a six-furlong specialist — as was Letsgotovegas, her winning sibling. If things get feisty on the front, SALTY and her midpack running style have a shot. But, she will have to overcome the bottom side of her breeding to get there.
#7 NONNA BELLA (2/1)
#2 TEQUILITA (5/1)
#6 SALTY (9/5)
Longshot: At 19/1, #5 JORDAN’S HENNY (8/1) finished second in the Davona Dale, just half a length behind Miss Sky Warrior. With the top three looming large, she stands to get ignored in the betting once again here. She has room to improve after that Davona Dale performance — after all, it was her first start since mid-December. She keeps Corey Lanerie in the irons from that start. And, though JORDAN’S HENNY was right near the front for so much of the Davona Dale, she showed at two that she can do well when stalking. Though two turns may sound a little strange for a daughter of Henny Hughes out of a Rubiano mare, there is some stamina in there from the female side: after all, JORDAN’S HENNY has hit the board twice at a mile and a sixteenth, and all three of her winning siblings have had their pictures taken in two-turn races. A step forward from last out could get her at least an underneath piece again here.
Race 14: Xpressbet Florida Derby (GI), three-year-olds, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 6:40pm 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. Fourteen 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), and Nyquist (2016). 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 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.
Dialed In rallies to win the 2011 Florida Derby. A first-crop son of his, GUNNEVERA, aims to match his feat on Saturday.
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. GUNNEVERA has emerged as the top banana among Florida’s open three-year-old set, and with good reason. First off his winter layoff, he closed nicely to be second in the Holy Bull (G2). He returned to win the Fountain of Youth (G2) in a romp. With ALWAYS DREAMING and THREE RULES in the field, he looks to get something to chase once again, though he has already proven that he does not need a complete collapse to make up ground. GUNNEVERA stands out against this company: he’s good enough, he’s fast enough, and gosh darn it he likes to close at Gulfstream. He hasn’t gone a mile and an eighth before, but that poses little worry. Being by Dialed In (a son of Mineshaft, and himself a Florida Derby winner!) out of an Unbridled mare, he has every right to take to the distance.
One of the horses Dialed In beat in the 2011 Florida Derby was To Honor and Serve. One of his sons, STATE OF HONOR, will try to avenge his sire’s defeat here. STATE OF HONOR has quietly put together a strong three-year-old season. He finished a head shy of Sonic Mule in the Mucho Macho Man in January. That came from off the pace. He added blinkers for his next two starts, set the pace in both of the Tampa Bay preps, and held on to hit the board in both. In fact, the only horses to finish ahead of STATE OF HONOR in Tampa were McCraken and Tapwrit — not a bad couple of form lines, given that the field he faces here is not all that deep beyond GUNNEVERA. Here, STATE OF HONOR ditches the blinkers — probably a good thing, with ALWAYS DREAMING and THREE RULES likely to be forward, though STATE OF HONOR has often shown pace even without that piece of equipment. Still, that Mucho Macho Man start proves he is not one-way speed, and trainer Mark Casse has a positive ROI (+$0.42) going blinkers-off. The rider appeals, too: STATE OF HONOR keeps Julien Leparoux aboard, his jockey for all three of his starts this year. All in all, STATE OF HONOR has been dependable and classy, and has every right to turn in another solid effort here.
Pacewise, the most interesting part of this race is the front end. STATE OF HONOR, ditching the blinkers, may or may not go. ALWAYS DREAMING set the pace last out in an allowance and won easily. That race came at a mile and an eighth — he is the only horse in this field to have a victory going nine panels. But, he strolled through the softest of fractions that day, and will have a tougher time here. THREE RULES set the pace in the Fountain of Youth, and even though he got some pace pressure from Irish War Cry that day, he stayed on to finish third, albeit well-beaten.
With ALWAYS DREAMING likely to go off at vastly underlaid odds (since stablemate BATTALION RUNNER is expected to scratch), this space likes THREE RULES better. THREE RULES has some tactical options with his relatively outside post, and he has shown he can stalk the pace if need be. He should get the jump on ALWAYS DREAMING and STATE OF HONOR, and be able to control things. The question, of course, is whether he will stay nine furlongs with possible pace pressure. That remains to be seen. But, THREE RULES has never missed the baord in seven tries in Hallandale Beach, he gets excellent Gulfstream pilot Luis Saez in the irons, and he has proven himself to be a dependable and hard-trying sort. Here, that may be enough to get him a big piece underneath.
#11 GUNNEVERA (9/5)
#1 STATE OF HONOR (8/1)
#10 THREE RULES (8/1)
Longshot: #7 UNBRIDLED HOLIDAY (30/1) comes out of the same race as as ALWAYS DREAMING and CHARLIE THE GREEK. If there’s one horse this space wants to take out of the race, it’s this one. ALWAYS DREAMING wired it, crawling as slowly as he wanted, and will likely go the second betting choice. CHARLIE THE GREEK tracked relatively close to that slow pace, and looks rather outclassed here. UNBRIDLED HOLIDAY, on the other hand, has an excuse. Settled a couple lengths off of that sluggish pace set by ALWAYS DREAMING, he ran along well late. His foe just had it too easy — and, with THREE RULES and perhaps STATE OF HONOR making it tougher for ALWAYS DREAMING up front, UNBRIDLED HOLIDAY stands to make more of an impression this time around. With the blinkers going on here, he may even get first run. Rider Nik Juarez should fit his running style, the start has him second off a short break, and the breeding suggests nine furlongs is worth another shot. Winning this may be a big ask for UNBRIDLED HOLIDAY, but he could hit the board at odds.