HOW TO PREPARE FOR FLORIDA DERBY DAY AND BEYOND

HOW TO PREPARE FOR FLORIDA DERBY DAY AND BEYOND

By Noel Michaels

Noel is chief handicapper for The Race Palace, Long Island's premier OTB wagering facility, and director of Personnel for Nassau OTB. He was a long time racetrack correspondent and online Editor for the Daily Racing Form. He's also the best-selling author of many best-selling handicapping books, including , The Players Angle Almanac, Winning Angles A to Z,The Handicapping Contest Handbook (DRF Press) and Noel's latest: Handicapping The Big Winter Meets.

The Gulfstream Park meet is 2½  months old and we are already approaching the centerpiece of the meet - Florida Derby Day - on Saturday, March 20.  There is still one month left in the marquee East coast winter meet, but we have already seen more than enough racing at this point to give us plenty of valuable information to provide for a profitable month ahead for Florida Derby Day and beyond.  The information we've gleaned at Gulfstream from early January until now, in addition to my statistics-packed betting guide, "Handicapping the Big Winter Meets," should be enough to give us the framework for a profitable stretch-run through the end of South Florida's premier race meet at Gulfstream.

Gulfstream offers the East's top winter stakes program, which is headlined by Florida Derby Day and its 5 Graded stakes races including the featured Grade 1, $750,000 Florida Derby, which will be the final Kentucky Derby prep race for several promising Derby hopefuls. The Florida Derby will go as race 11 of a 12-race card that also includes renewals of the G2-Bonnie Miss Stakes for 3-year-old filly Kentucky Oaks aspirants, and the G2 Swale Stakes, a sprint for 3-year-olds, as well as the G3 Rampart Stakes and the Grade 3 Appleton Stakes.

And take note! For handicappers looking ahead to Saturday's festivities, there's good news in the weather department: Sunny skies are predicted for Friday and Saturday, and the track is expected to provide ideal fast and firm racing conditions for Saturday's card.

Needless to say, the Florida Derby remains one of the most important stepping stones on the road to the Kentucky Derby now more than ever. In the decade of the 2000s, three Florida Derby winners went on to win the Kentucky Derby including 2001 winner Monarchos, 2006 winner Barbaro, and 2008 champion Big Brown.

This year's Florida Derby was supposed to feature current winter book Kentucky Derby favorite Eskendereya until trainer Todd Pletcher threw everyone a curveball and opted to send Eskendereya to the Wood Memorial on April 3. Pletcher will still send out the Florida Derby favorite, however, which perhaps entered into his decision with Eskendereya. The new 5-2 morning-line chalk will be Pletcher's Rule, the winner of four races in a row including back-to-back graded stakes victories in the Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs and the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs.

Rule might be a quality standout and a truly deserving favorite, but unlike his stablemate Eskendereya, Rule certainly did not frighten anyone away from the Florida Derby field, and if anything might have been responsible for bringing new horses in. The Florida Derby field was drawn on Wednesday with a full wide-open field of 11 horses.

Some of the standouts in the Florida Derby field besides Rule include Richard Dutrow's highly-regarded Radiohead, who exits an impressive mile win at Gulfstream last month, and, of course, the much talked about Lentenor, the little brother of 2006 Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro.

The Florida Derby will be Lentenor's first start on dirt, and Radiohead was unfortunate enough at the post position draw to land the far outside post 11, which has been nearly impossible to win from in the last several years (unless your name happens to be Big Brown, the eventual Kentucky Derby winner who overcame post 12 to win the 2008 Florida Derby for these same connections - trainer Richard Dutrow and owners IEAH Stables).

If history does not repeat itself, either with Lentenor or Radiohead, then the list of challengers to Rule consists of a field full of promising horses who have yet to distinguish themselves against top competition but still have enough time to step up and make a strong move forward in time to make them contenders on the First Saturday in May. That list of horses is headed by Nick Zito's Ice Box, who had a tough trip en route to a fifth-place finish in the Fountain of Youth, and the Dale Romans-trained First Dude, who has never finished worse than second in four career outings so far. New York win king Ramon Dominguez will fly down to Gulfstream Saturday to accept the mount on First Dude, considerably raising that horse's stock.

And as if that wasn't enough 3-year-old action on the card for Kentucky Derby hopefuls, Saturday's Gulfstream card will also feature the heavily-favored Hutcheson Stakes winner D'Funnybone in the Swale Stakes. When the day is done, between D'Funnybone and Radiohead, trainer Richard Dutrow is likely to have at least one and perhaps ever two serious Derby contenders on his hands heading to Churchill Downs.

Any big day of racing, including Florida Derby Day, is always a lot better from a horseplayer's point of view when you are winning races and cashing tickets, and the best way to accomplish that task is to carefully comb the past performances for trainer angles and to pay attention to certain other meet-specific handicapping tips that have proven themselves to be profitable at Gulfstream such as Gulfstream's many running-style and post position biases that tend to prevail on a fairly consistent basis dating all the was back to 2005 when the main track was reconfigured to its current mile-and-an-eighth layout.

Here are some quick Gulfstream handicapping tips, not only to help you win on Florida Derby Day, but also to come in handy for the rest of the Gulfstream meet through the end of April.

In Gulfstream dirt races, the prevailing track bias tends to favor horses with early speed, or at least tactical speed, at all distances. Stalkers and mid-pack horses sometimes run well, but deep closers are generally not the best plays at Gulfstream Park, except on days when the temporary bias helps out closers and works against speed.

Beyond just the prevailing biases, don't overlook those important daily track biases when handicapping Gulfstream, which can be filled with a variety of track biases that end up affecting the outcomes of the races in several different ways. Keeping track of biases can lead you to some interesting overlays that offer good value, while at the same time helping you steer clear of horses that have been aided by track biases in recent good efforts. Handicappers should not underestimate the impact that these biases can have on the race results. This bias information can be invaluable when it comes to evaluating the relative strength or weakness of the contenders in future races in cases where horses are exiting races where they ran with, or against, a noticeable track bias.

Below are my personal track bias notes for Gulfstream Park since the middle of February. On a day-to-day basis I have also followed the position of the turf rails on the Gulfstream grass course, which this season has been divided into inner and outer turf courses to help the condition of the course and thereby maximize the amount of grass racing that's possible at the meet.

The notes on the position of the turf rails are included for a very important reason. This is because it is always very difficult for horses to go wire-to-wire on the turf at Gulfstream. For whatever reason, the Gulfstream grass course almost always favors stalkers or closers, or perhaps even pressers, and this has been the case consistently since the track changed configurations in 2005.  However, this is not to say that speed horses and early pace horses cannot win at Gulfstream. There are three instances when pace horses tend to perform well on these turf courses: 1) The horse is the lone speed in the race, preferably from an inside post, 2) The horse has a large class edge on the rest of the field, and 3) When the turf rails are moved out from the hedge - the farther the better.

Gulfstream Track Biases and Turf Rail Positions (Feb. 15 - March 7)

March 7 - Turf rail 24 ft. races 8,10; rail 96 ft. race 6,9,11
March 6 - Turf rail 24 ft. races 8,10; rail 96 ft. races 5,7,9
March 5 - Turf rail 24 ft. races 4,8; rail 96 ft. races 6,9
March 4 - Turf rail 24 ft. races 4,6,9; rail 96 ft. race 8
March 3 - All dirt winners close to the pace; Turf rail 24 ft. races 2,5,9; rail 96 ft. race 7
Feb. 28 - Turf rail 12 ft races 7,9, rail 84 ft. races 2,8,10
Feb. 27 - Turf rail 12 ft races 6,9, rail 84 ft. race 5
Feb. 26 - Speed and the rail good on dirt; turf rail 12 ft race 6,9, rail 84 ft. races 4,8
Feb. 25 - Turf rail 12 ft races 5,9, rail 84 ft. race 7
Feb. 21 - Dead rail on the main track; turf rail 72 ft races 7,9
Feb. 20 - Turf rail 72 ft. races 1,5,9
Feb. 19 - Turf rail 72 ft. races 4,8
Feb. 18 - Turf rail 72 ft. races 8
Feb. 17 - Turf rail 72 ft. races 6,8
Feb. 15 - Turf rail 48 ft. races 5,7,9

Beyond the prevailing running style biases for Gulfstream to favor horses with tactical speed on dirt and stalkers and closers on the turf, the other primary Gulfstream prevailing track bias revolves around post positions.

Gulfstream one-turn dirt races favor outside paths, while Gulfstream two-turn races favor inside posts. When you are stuck between two or more contenders in a race and can't make up your mind based on any other information, let these two rules be your guide to making your final decision and you probably will seldom go wrong.  This particularly pertains to all horses breaking from the rail post position in Gulfstream sprints from 6F to one mile, and to horses breaking outside post 6 in two-turn dirt routes.  These posts are always at a disadvantage, and this is no short-term statement. It has always been this way on Gulfstream's current track layout, which has been in place since 2005.

2010 GULFSTREAM PARK WINNING POSTS
Sprints up to one-mile - Dirt

Post

Wins

Starts

%

1

34

301

11%

2

44

301

15%

3

20

301

7%

4

36

301

12%

5

33

300

11%

6

32

291

11%

7

29

272

11%

8

26

233

11%

9

17

183

9%

10

15

134

11%

11

11

101

11%

12

4

61

7%

Two-turn routes - Dirt

Post

Wins

Starts

%

1

5

28

18%

2

3

28

11%

3

4

28

14%

4

6

28

21%

5

3

27

11%

6

3

25

12%

7

1

20

5%

8

1

13

8%

9

1

13

8%

10

1

8

13%

11

0

4

0%

12

0

1

0%

Interestingly, unlike in Gulfstream's two-turn dirt races, outside post positions have never been much of a detriment for horses in two-turn turf races. This is opposite to the way most tracks play where inside draws are key factors in winning turf routes. More often than not at Gulfstream, running style - not post draw - has been a key determining factor how well a horse is expected to run on the Gulfstream lawn.

2010 GULFSTREAM PARK WINNING POSTS
Turf Sprints

Post

Wins

Starts

%

1

1

28

4%

2

0

28

0%

3

7

28

25%

4

2

28

7%

5

2

28

7%

6

0

28

0%

7

6

28

21%

8

4

26

15%

9

2

23

9%

10

4

15

27%

11

0

12

0%

12

0

6

0%

Two-turn routes 7-1/2F and longer - Turf

Post

Wins

Starts

%

1

20

137

15%

2

12

137

9%

3

10

137

7%

4

14

137

10%

5

14

137

10%

6

10

137

7%

7

8

135

6%

8

9

128

7%

9

13

118

11%

10

15

106

14%

11

8

91

9%

12-14

4

67

6%

All the handicapping angles in this article are for a horseplayer's general information and are intended to help bettors identify which of their selections might be in better positions to perform optimally than others who may not be in quite as good situations due to either their running style, their post positions, and whether or not their recent past performances were earned with or against the help of any track bias.

For specific recommendations on upcoming horses that you might want to watch out for, I have also compiled a list of horses who have had excuses in their recent races and appear to be ready to win in their upcoming starts.


GULFSTREAM PARK HORSES TO WATCH

  • ANNABILL: Ran a solid second in return from a 3 1/2-month layoff, losing only to the good-looking even-money stakes race-bound winning favorite.
  • APPLE CHARLOTTE: Was unlucky to lose in the Herecomesthebride Stakes when she overcame clipping heels and went on to rally strongly before settling for second. Just needs a clean trip.
  • CAPTAIN CANUCK: First starter closed strongly for second after checking at the start and breaking last in a 12-horse field in a difficult two-turn turf assignment. Ready to graduate.
  • CLEAN SHOT: Steadied and bumped after the start and then steadied again at the top of the stretch. Can improve next time with a better trip.
  • DADE BABE: Got caught in a five-length-gap speed duel and still held on for third. Still a threat to shake loose up front.
  • DREAMINOFJOSEPHINE: Broke awkwardly and later got caught in traffic in the stretch, but still managed to rally for third, just a nose out of second.
  • DUCDUC: Closed for second behind a lone speed wire-to-wire winner in return from a brief layoff, and got claimed by the high-percentage Frank Calabrese connections.
  • DYNAZAPER: Don't underestimate based on fifth-place finish when needing a race in first start back from a four-month layoff. Lost by only about a length and will be right there next time in second off the layoff.
  • FREYCINETTE: Finished mid-pack in her first start, but the effort was actually better than it looked as she recorded the best finish of any of the front-runners in her race that was otherwise dominated by closers.
  • GREEN MONSTER: First starter ran his eyeballs out for second, recovering from a slow stumbling start to nearly get up in time in a huge come-from-behind effort at 5 ½ F.
  • MIZE THE BIG CAT: Closed well for third at 5½ furlongs, especially considering he was the only horse to close ground from off the pace in a race where the speed held up.
  • MY ENTICEMENT: First starter is better than mid-pack debut would indicate after he steadied in traffic on the turn and again in the stretch after racing inside on a dead rail.
  • OLIVE EYE: Toss out the last-place finish when she stumbled at the start and then rushed up toward the lead to lose all chance. Deserves another shot.
  • PERFECT BLOOM: Was the only horse in his race to close any substantial ground from off the pace after breaking from the rail in a race ruled by outside horses who raced on or close to the pace.
  • PERFECT SHIRL: First starter ran a big debut for second, and might have been a lot closer to winning if not for lacking running room behind the winner in the stretch. Won't be a maiden for long on the grass.
  • SKY HIGH HATTY: Finished off the board, but lost by less than a length  after drawing the 12-hole and breaking last and having a troubled trip in a 12-horse field behind a wire-to-wire winner.
  • SOUPER BUTTERFLY: Not much was expected of this Finger Lakes invader in a turf race off a layoff, but she actually ran a solid race despite finishing sixth with a troubled trip.
  • SOUTHERN DANGER: Understandably needed a race off an eight-month layoff, and never really had a chance in return race after stumbling badly at the start.
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