Prepping for the Derby Volume V... No. 13

PREPPING FOR THE DERBY — 2014
Volume V…Number 13
Thursday, March 31, 2014

Constitution Makes Declarative Statement…Prince Is A Pauper In Florida Derby…
Bettors Get It Right…And Wrong…In Florida Derby, But What Did The Race Tells Us


There are a number of things to take out of this year’s running of the seminal Florida Derby. But perhaps the two most declarative statements were made by the winner Constitution and the smart contingent of the public, which made the winner the second favorite ahead of Fountain of Youth winner Wildcat Red and runner-up General A Rod. Of course the ever-present compulsory segment of the public also made Cairo Prince the 6-5 favorite.

In the minds of many followers of the Triple Crown the Florida Derby has taken its place in the upper echelons of key Kentucky Derby prep races. Last year Orb won the Florida Derby and followed with a Kentucky Derby victory. In 2010, Ice Box followed up his Florida Derby victory with a furious late rush to get the place at 12-1. In 2008 Big Brown added a popular Kentucky Derby win to his equally popular Florida Derby win 5 weeks earlier and in 2006 Barbaro completed the same back-to-back triumphs.

Given that history it is likely that more than a handful of analysts and handicappers will have Constitution on their shortlist of top Derby contenders. And why shouldn’t they? After all, the lightly raced son of Tapit is now a perfect 3-for-3 in his career, and to his credit the Todd Pletcher trained colt answered the first challenge he has received in that short career.

For all the heart, grit and experience-beyond-development the colt showed the neck victory over the ultra-consistent speed runner Wildcat Red was equally due to Javier Castellano’s heady ride. The jockey was super adroit at the top of the stretch when Wildcat Red briefly abandoned the rail and Castellano took his place, which made the difference in the race.

Constitution was well touted heading into the race off his dominant debut MSW win and impressive in hand allowance win prior to the Florida Derby tally. But as good as it was his constitutional establishment must now be followed up by the demands of holding on to his declaration of excellence as he goes to battle with the more seasoned opponents who will look to rule over him in the Kentucky Derby.

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In defeat, Wildcat Red continued to outrun the expectations of those who have waited for him to falter each time he has been asked to carry his speed further. In fact, the son of D’Wildcat wasn’t even supposed to be able to carry his speed as far as he did in winning the mile and a sixteenth Fountain Of Youth and in actuality his second this past Saturday was more impressive than that FOY victory because he showed even more maturity. In the Florida Derby he once again set the pace early, holding off the equally determined General A Rod and last out stakes winner Spot through the first half mile before the latter began to falter. The top two then continued on with General A Rod weakening in the lane as Constitution took advantage of that rail skimming ride and the heavy lifting on the pace by the top two.

What flatters the runner-up is how he travelled throughout. He utilized the kind of well-measured cruising speed splits that you love to see in a colt preparing to run steady fractions over the course of the ten furlongs of the Kentucky Derby. It doesn’t get much better than running quarters number one through three in almost exact :24 flat splits followed by a final 3 furlongs in :37 flat that included an accelerated final furlong in :12 3/5. With all things being equal, if I had to choose between Constitution and Wildcat Red as the better prospect for the Kentucky Derby I would take the latter. Wildcat Red has continued to move forward without showing signs of stress while the Florida Derby winner, being unraced as a juvenile and moving forward so quickly is the ultimate bounce candidate. That being said, it must also be noted that the colt’s entire seven race career has been spent on the Gulfstream park main track so one has to wonder how much of a “shock” it might be the first time he leaves home.

While General A Rod once again turned in a solid effort following his head loss to Wildcat Red in the Fountain Of Youth and he is certainly in good hands being in the barn of Mike Maker, the one dimensional pressing style he has exhibited in all four of his traditional dirt races (he broke his maiden in his debut with an off the pace effort at Keeneland) isn’t going to find easier going should he get to the starting gate in Louisville in 5 weeks time.

The biggest disappointment of course was 6-5 favorite Cairo Prince, who if nothing else, gave credibility to the handful of analysts who were troubled by his long layoff following the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes on January 25. While it is always difficult to question a trainer with the bones of Kieran McLaughlin the tactic of relying on just the one prep, especially when the colt needed points from that prep to even qualify for the Kentucky Derby, was as big a gamble as that made by the high rollers who went down with him in the Florida Derby. Now, it is possible that he can limp into the final spot or two of Derby qualification (last year 14 points was enough to get a place in the gate) but after breaking off the early pace-setters as he tracked in fourth he moved up 4 wide entering the stretch, appeared as though he were going to begin making his move but flattened out and never threatened. And despite the conditioner’s post race talk about being disappointed but moving forward towards the first Saturday in May it should be noted that even though 14 points was enough to qualify a year ago, Cairo Prince has 24 this year but is teetering in 16th place and must hope for the worst from those behind him with the Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass Stakes and Lexington Stakes still to be run.

One last thing that we might want to take out of the Florida Derby and how it contributes to the overall speculation of how it’s participants might be viewed moving forward is to realize that for all the success many of the graduates have had there have also been significantly disappointing follow up performances in the Kentucky Derby and on balance, those who came from off the pace in the Florida Derby have collectively done a bit better in the Kentucky Derby than those who have either wired their way to victory or come from pressing positions to win their final Derby prep at Gulfstream.

Last year Orb won from off-the-pace at Gulfstream and did likewise in the Kentucky Derby. Conversely, in 2012 Take Charge Indy went wire-to-wire in the Florida Derby and was no match up front for Bodemeister before spitting the bit and finishing 19th while Union Rags, who finished third in the Florida Derby, closed a lot of ground in Louisville despite all sorts of trouble. In 2011, Shakleford just missed wiring the Florida Derby at a huge price and although he did turn in a gutsy effort in Louisville faded to fourth in the final furlong while Florida Derby winner Dialed in never got untracked after breaking last of 19. In 2010, Ice Box turned in a dramatic late stage rally to win the Florida Derby and almost duplicated that effort in the Kentucky Derby before settling for the place behind Super Saver. In 2009, Florida Derby Winner Quality Road never made it to Louisville while on-the-pace runner up Dunkirk never had a chance after stumbling badly at the start and once back on stride getting steadied hard shortly thereafter. In 2008 there was little drama as Big Brown easily won the Florida derby as he pleased and did so in the Kentucky Derby as well. In 2007 Scat Daddy pressed the pace and drew off late to win the Florida Derby yet when attempting to get engaged while 4-5 wide as they hit the backstretch in the Derby bumped with a rival and after getting shuffled back was quickly dissuaded from battling any further. Like Big Brown in 2006, Barbaro raced just off the pace before taking over in the Florida Derby and did likewise in the Kentucky Derby.

Sometimes you can overanalyze these things to your own detriment but given that with the exceptions of super horses Big Brown and Barbaro, there might be value in at least factoring in a consensus that it is probably better to come out of the Florida Derby as a solid off the pace runner that has shown significant ability than a front runner in a race not anywhere as demanding in field size or pace as the Kentucky Derby. Which is why you might want to hold the likes of Constitution and Wildcat Red to higher standards than only their terrific performances in their final Kentucky Derby preps effort on Saturday.

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