My favorite part of the final round of Kentucky Derby preps is that we begin to get answers (or at least glimpses of possible answers) to the questions that always surround the class of three-year-olds pointing for the most prestigious race in the country, and this year’s edition of the G1 Florida Derby is no exception. Hopefully, by the time the 11 three-year-old colts finish contesting the mile and an eighth distance of Gulfstream Park’s 14th race on Saturday, the puzzle that is the Kentucky Derby will begin to come into even sharper focus.
The morning line favorite, and the horse that may have the most to prove, is #1 Hidden Scroll. The Bill Mott-trained son of Hard Spun posted a 104 Beyer when winning his January 24th debut wire-to-wire by 14 lengths over a sloppy mile trip at Gulfstream Park, but faded to finish fourth after rushing up to get the lead in the Fountain of Youth as the favorite. I’ll choose to take a stand against this colt, although watching his most recent Payson Park work has made me a bit less secure in my convictions, as Hidden Scroll relaxed beautifully behind a workmate and was able to overtake that rival at will and move away easily. However, I am not yet convinced that this horse is as freakishly good as that debut number incidates. I think it’s very likely that he moved up on the wet track, and I think the rail draw is likely to compromise the chances of a horse with such little experience. Rating behind a single workmate is a bit different from rating not only behind, but also inside of a full field of horses. If he goes to the lead, I think he will have to contend with the likes of Maximum Security on the front end, and there are enough tactical horses in the race to keep him from getting clear. That said, Bill Mott is an excellent conditioner and this colt clearly has a wealth of raw ability, and he could very well prove me wrong but I’m willing to make him do so at a short price.
#9 Code of Honor won the Fountain of Youth last time out, redeeming his disappointing odds-on loss in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes back in January, and I think he’s a major contender again today. The chestnut son of Noble Mission has posted two consecutive bullet works since the Fountain of Youth, and I think he will take another step forward in the Florida Derby. He is versatile enough that jockey John Velazquez should be able to work out a good mid-pack trip from the nine post position. I think that the Fountain of Youth was the strongest Derby prep we’ve seen to date, and I feel as though the top 7 finishers who separated themselves from the three trailers are all very legitimate horses.
Gaining quickly on Code of Honor in the final strides of the Fountain of Youth was #4 Bourbon War. He’s a horse that I think demands respect in here and moving forward to the Kentucky Derby, as he has shown the ability to overcome adversity and navigate traffic. He came from far out of it in the Fountain of Youth, but can be reasonably tactical, as he proved in his allowance win over recent Sunland Park Derby winner Cutting Humor back in January, where he was toward the back of the pack but less than four lengths off of reasonable splits of :23.8 and :47.4.
#7 Maximum Security is the new shooter in this race. He has the best last-out Beyer speed figure of any horse in the field, posting a 102 when he dominated a 7 furlong allowance by over 18 lengths on February 20th. This will be the first start around two turns for the son of Breeders Cup Juvenile winner New Years Day, but I don’t think 1 1/8 will be out of his wheelhouse, as his dam is very closely related to multiple G1 winner Flat Out, a two-time winner of the 10f Jockey Club Gold Cup. I think it’s possible this horse improves with distance, which could catapult him into the Derby picture despite the fact he debuted for a claiming tag of $16,000. He showed the ability to relax slightly off the pace in his second career start, and I think he’s likely to either get the lead or be able to sit just off of Hidden Scroll in this race. Trainer Jason Servis is winning at a ridiculous 45%, and this colt is going to be very interesting to watch in here.
One horse that presents a major handicapping conundrum is #2 Current. This son of Curlin has never run on a fast dirt track, but he was a very good juvenile on the turf last year, and he has the excuse of a poor start to excuse his two sub-par performances (one of which was his only dirt effort, when there was a sloppy track at Churchill Downs in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes). This colt is out of a daughter of Kentucky Oaks winner Flute, and he’s a half-brother to Ashland Stakes winner Weep No More. Todd Pletcher , who strikes at 24% when switching horses from turf to dirt, sees fit to place this colt here off a bullet work at Payson on March 22nd, and if he gets out of the gate, I think this colt could make some noise. With all the other talent in this race, he’s a horse that I’ll reluctantly leave out of my top contenders, but it’s not hard to imagine this horse improving on the dirt and leaving everyone feeling a bit stupid for counting out a talented Todd Pletcher colt who cost $725,000 as a yearling.
Despite the deep field of contenders, my top pick in the Florida Derby will be #3 Harvey Wallbanger. I thought he had a chance in the Holy Bull, and he outran my expectations in there, and while I don’t think that field was particularly deep, I love the rail move he made in there. This little colt has never run a bad race, and watching back his maiden efforts shows a horse that looked a bit immature but clearly naturally talented and absolutely fearless. I think this is the kind of horse that will make his own trip from the back of the pack and is capable of taking advantage of the slightest opening without losing momentum. This son of Congrats is also bred on my favorite pattern – that of crossing a stallion from La Troienne’s family 1-x with a mare from that same line (in Harvey Wallbanger’s case, the branch of the family stemming from champion Numbered Account, which also includes champion Rhythm, multiple G1 winner Private Account, and Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, among others). Even if this colt does not win today, I think he will run a credible race and I think he fits the profile for the kind of horse that could end up thriving in a 20-horse field at Churchill Downs (which happens to be the track over which he broke his maiden).
I wouldn’t talk anyone off of using #10 Union’s Destiny in exotics, as he’s another horse who is a bit of a question mark. He did not embarrass himself in finishing 6th after getting fanned very wide on the first turn, which led to him being much further back than he had been in his previous starts. This son of Union Rags is on the improve, and while he has not yet proven he’s as good as some of the others in here, I don’t think he’s an impossibility to round out trifectas or superfectas. #11 Garter and Tie is another horse that I think could bring home a paycheck, although I don’t see him figuring in the trifecta. He’s a colt who showed a lot of ability as a two-year-old in Florida, and Ralph Nicks is taking the blinkers off this Florida-bred for the first time, a move that I like on a horse that showed some heart and tenacity back in 2018.
Overall, this year’s Florida Derby is an excellent betting race and should be a very interesting addition to the Kentucky Derby picture. This is a race where I believe as many as six of these horses have a chance at winning, but at 15-1 on the morning line, I think Harvey Wallbanger presents the best value of any of the major contenders and I will make him my top selection as a result.
My top pick is #3 Harvey Wallbanger, followed by #4 Bourbon War, #7 Maximum Security, and #9 Code of Honor.