Fierceness Revs up and Gears Down in Florida Derby

March 30, 2024

Fierceness rebounds with record Curlin Florida Derby win (Juliana Colombo/Past The Wire)

Eclipse Champion Rolls to Victory by Record 13 ½ Lengths; Gives Pletcher Record Eighth Win in Tradition-Rich Prep

David Joseph/Gulfstream Park

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla.— Repole Stable’s Fierceness recaptured his championship form in dramatic fashion Saturday at Gulfstream Park, where the son of City of Light overpowered his opposition by a record 13 ½ lengths in the $1 million Curlin Florida Derby (G1) presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa.

“That was a pretty awesome performance. That’s what we see in the mornings when we breeze him, a special talent,” Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher said. “That’s why it was so perplexing his two races that he didn’t run brilliantly. He’s three times brilliant and two times has had off days.”

Fierceness provided Pletcher with his record-extending eighth Curlin Florida Derby victory while posting the largest winning margin in the 73-year history of the tradition-rich 1 1/8-mile stakes for 3-year-olds, eclipsing Empire Maker’s old record of 9 ¾ lengths set in 2003.

The juvenile champion of 2023 joined Pletcher’s previous Curlin Florida Derby winners, Forte (2023), Known Agenda (2021), Audible (2018), Always Dreaming (2017), Materiality (2015), Constitution (2014), and Quality Road (2009).

Fierceness, who finished a disappointing third in the Feb. 2 Holy Bull (G3) in his 3-year-old debut after clinching the Eclipse Award with a 6 ¼-length victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at Santa Anita, earned 100 qualifying points for the May 4 Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs, where he will surely vie for favoritism in the first leg of the Triple Crown.

“From a talent perspective, he has it all,” Pletcher said. “Like everyone else in the Derby, you’ve got to hope you draw a good post, you get a good trip, and you like Churchill Downs – all those things.”

Away and racing in the Florida Derby (Juliana Colombo/Past The Wire)

Despite his subpar showing in the Holy Bull, Fierceness was sent to post as the even-money favorite in a field reduced to nine horses upon the early morning withdrawals of his stablemate Bail Us Out and Seminole Chief. The Repole Stable homebred put on a show for his backers and everyone else with his dazzling effort, in which he took control on the first turn and was never threatened thereafter. Fierceness set fractions of 24.06 and 47.50 seconds for the first half-mile with Grand Mo the First and Catalytic in pursuit before drawing away while geared down by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez.

“It was pretty easy. This is what I expected last time out of him. He had been working lights out. He broke well today, and I just let him have it. I let them come and get him, and he dominated the whole race. When he got to the backstretch and switched to the turn, he picked it up and so I let him do it. He was comfortable,” Velazquez said. “Then at the quarter pole, I gave him a little smooch and he picked it up right away. It was pretty easy. This is why we’re here. This is what we work for, for opportunities like this. It’s exciting.”

Fierceness ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.22 to also provide Velazquez with his record-extending sixth Florida Derby success. The Hall of Famer previously won aboard Audible, Always Dreaming, Materiality, Orb (2013) and Quality Road.

Fierceness has bounced back from a subpar showing before. After winning his debut at Saratoga last August, he finished seventh over a sloppy Aqueduct track in the Oct. 7 Champagne (G1). The Pletcher trainee, of course, redeemed himself with his dominating Breeders’ Cup Juvenile win.

Catalytic, who was making his stakes debut in only his third career start, held on to finish second under Julien Leparoux, 2 ½ lengths ahead of Grand Mo the First, who nosed out 5-2 second choice Conquest Warrior for third.

Tami Bobo, Julie Davies and George Isaac’s Catalytic won his debut by 5 ½ lengths at Gulfstream last October and came back five months later to finish second in a March 8 optional claiming allowance at Tampa Bay Downs.

“He’s a good horse. It wasn’t the ideal circumstance, but he was brave today. I had a lot of respect for some of the horses in the race and he ran a really good second,” trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. said after Catalytic earned 50 Kentucky Derby qualifying points. “Nothing was going to beat the winner. We should improve a lot from this. Hopefully he comes out well, and we’ve got five weeks to keep dreaming.”

Trainer Victor Barboza Jr. is hopeful that Grand Mo the First, who was beaten by only a neck while finishing third in the March 9 Tampa Bay Derby (G3), will make the Kentucky Derby field.

“I’m very happy with the race. Today he earned 25 points. He has 40 points,” Barboza said. “He has a good chance to make the Kentucky Derby.”

Courtlandt Farms’ Conquest Warrior, who was coming off a pair of impressive victories during the Championship Meet, was never in contention while finishing fourth.

“He didn’t break real sharp, so I think it got him out of position a little bit. He was kind of having to wind through all that dirt and stuff,” McGaughey said. “He’s still a young horse. He just needs to learn.”

Conquest Warrior finished 4 ¾ lengths ahead of Holy Bull winner Hades, who raced evenly to check in fifth.

“It was a terrible trip. I had a lot of trouble on the first turn and at the three-eighths [pole]. He wasn’t handling the track today very well,” Hades’ jockey Paco Lopez said. “I can’t believe it the way he was training here. I’m very surprised. He tried hard, but it was not like the last race.”

Fancy new attire for the Florida Derby champ (Juliana Colombo/Past The Wire)

Fierceness gave Repole Stable back-to-back Curlin Florida Derby wins, following Forte, who was co-owned by St. Elias Stable LLC.

“It’s surreal. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s not normal to do it once, [but] twice in back-to-back years to win this race and go in with the Kentucky Derby favorite? As you guys know from the past, a lot can happen from now to post time, but we saw something pretty special today,” owner Mike Repole said.

“It’s just special. I got 70 family members, and they wanted it for me as much as I wanted it for them. It’s just very special,” he added. “I said before, we forget he’s only had four races. He had a layoff. That was just really special. I told Todd if he wins by five or is beat by five, I wouldn’t be surprised. How could you be?”

What a day for @jonathanstettin who had the Rainbow 6 twice! That’s why he’s the KING!

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