Written by Jonathan Stettin
“If you build it, they will come.”
I’m pretty sure someone said that one day and it was never more evident than this past Saturday at the new and improved Gulfstream Park for the 66th running of the Florida Derby. Historically one of the more important preps for the Run for the Roses in May, this year’s renewal did not disappoint nor did the supporting card. Although run the same day as The Dubai World Cup, and the Louisiana Derby, in its own right a serious Kentucky Derby prep, Gulfstream Park managed to break the single Florida Derby Day handle with a record 26.8 million wagered. This was an impressive feat considering the strong cards being offered at other racetracks.
It was also refreshing to see such strong evidence of the Sport of Kings survival and ability to flourish following a week of some controversy and a bit of turmoil. I was a huge fan of the old Gulfstream Park and held court there daily for many years. It was the sight of one of my favorite pick 6 scores back in 2000 when my single Secret Status won the last race on the card before going on to win the Kentucky Oaks. I will never forget the track announcer’s voice echoing through the clubhouse PA system stating there was one winner of the pick 6 today. I believe it paid 126k give or take a few. The place was filled with mostly great memories for me. Gulfstream Park was one of those racetracks that just had that electricity in the air. When the place was torn down and we held the tent meet it was a sad time of uncertainty. I never thought I would be calling it the new and improved but credit where credit due, the place is a spectacular racing facility. Not only is it beautiful and set up for a great racing experience, but they know how to take care of all fans, the casual ones, the daily ones and the high rolling ones.
A strong card of 14 races capped and highlighted by The Florida Derby was filled with promising prospects, hardnosed performers, and top class stakes horses. What looked to be a long day on paper as we say, pretty much flew by with exciting race after exciting race. The first stake of the day reminded us of that age old lesson not to leave a trainer’s longer priced uncoupled entry out of your plays. Devil’s Cave trained by Marty Wolfson at even money could do no better than third as the speed only to be beaten by Gamay Noir also trained by Wolfson. Gamay Noir paid $100.20.
We got to see Charge Now, a half-brother to Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, break his maiden for Bill Mott and a nice first time starter prospect from Shug, La Madrina break her maiden smartly as well in what appeared to be a nice field.
One of the day’s more impressive performances was turned in by Kentucky Oaks candidate In Tune who held off the giant killer’s House Rules in a tough stretch battle. It was great to see “The Chief” Allen Jerkens with yet another stakes contender tackling a heavy favorite. House Rules didn’t get it done, but made sure you knew she was there.
Anjaz, on my watch list since Gulfstream Park last year, finally paid off under a heady ride by Rajiv Maragh and ran away with The Orchid Stakes. Oh yeah and just in case Marty Wolfson didn’t hammer the point enough for you stubborn players, Bill Mott won The Pan American with Newsdad. His favored Slumber finished third. Newsdad had one race back off the layoff and was obviously pointed to this spot by a master conditioner.
Although the day at Gulfstream Park did not need more excitement, it certainly provided some for at least one pick 6 player. The 4 plus million dollar rainbow pick 6 jackpot carryover is well chronicled. The bet takes its share of criticism being a jackpot play; however, when the pool is this size, it generates more than a fair share of action and for a 20c minimum it is well worth a stab. The daily payoffs have been excellent for multiple winners almost each day while the carryover builds for a sole winner or the mandatory payout at the end of the meet. I don’t share in the criticism and think it is a great bet with huge potential.
Despite all the naysayers and critics, it seems more often than you would think someone is alive for the whole pool. Fitting for this record breaking Florida Derby day someone was indeed alive to take it down. When the will pays went up there was a sole ticket alive to Matador, a 24-1 shot trained by the more than adept Mark Casse. Matador was not one of the obvious horses but he was far from hopeless. He was adding blinkers, and was coming off Tampa Bay Downs’ racetrack, one of my favorite leg em up surfaces. He was bred and eligible to improve. He was also a closer in a race that looked to have its share of pace. I considered Matador an adjustment horse. Once the Gulstream Park track was playing fairly and closers were winning I thought he could be used.
Well Matador encountered some traffic down along the inside and did not provide what would have been a huge win of 5 million dollars. The traffic did not appear to cost him the race as he was just not fast enough and the quality runners he faced did not come back to him. Could’ve happened but didn’t but someone somewhere watched him very closely.
It’s not often you put yourself in position for that type of win. For those of you who think the bet will carry until the end of the meet, you may be right but you just never know.
Constitution has shown serious talent from his first start. In his debut he was left at the gate, rallied up the inside taking dirt while showing no fear or hesitation and won smartly. He then stretched out against a good field and won nicely again. While on my radar since before he even ran, I was slightly hesitant about him as his trainer, Todd Pletcher had one in the barn who also won at first out named Hartford and the word was he was the better of the two. While Hartford had a setback and went to the farm Constitution grew up and became a racehorse to be reckoned with, winning the Florida Derby with a game run up the inside to beat a gallant but overmatched Wildcat Red. Wildcat Red benefited from a smart ride by John Velasquez which reminded me of his agent and one of the best ever Angel Cordero’s ride on Bold Forbes in the Belmont. Velasquez took Wildcat Red off the rail after the break and put him in the middle of the track to get him to relax and float the stalkers wide. His horse benefited from this and that helped him eke out the mile and an eighth which is probably further than he would prefer to go. Favored Cairo Prince seemed somewhat dull and never really threatened.
Constitution heads to Louisville as a still improving horse with some guts. That’s dangerous. He has that Apollo thing against him but like all other Derby angles that one will go down at some point as well. It’s a different game now and different types of horses get the roses. Javier Castellano got his well-deserved Florida Derby. Thus far, and I stress thus far, I think he and Candy Boy are heading to the race the way I like to see.
Those of you who know or follow me or even read the column know I am not much for hype. Show me on the racetrack. Not many horses have generated the type of hype Social Inclusion has. He was sold, then not sold, and then for sale again but not until after the Wood Memorial which will be run Saturday. Quite the gamble by his owners if the reported figures of 5 mil for a piece or 8 mil for all of him are accurate. I am not yet a believer in him at all. Even if he wins the Wood Memorial, that’s a far cry from the Kentucky Derby. He has two speed biased starts to his credit and he beat Honor Code when he was not at his best, at a tactical disadvantage, possibly hurt and on a track that favored Social Inclusion. He is going to have to show me more.
Enjoy the upcoming preps for the Derby. I have received some suggestions for future columns and will do my best to try and accommodate them. Should you have one please let me know.
Gulfstream Park took plenty of heat about their speed biased racetrack this meet from fans, players, and even trainers alike. Kudos to them for having an honest and fair track on Florida Derby day where horses won from all over.
While we try hard not to give the low 5 to jocks who risk it and put it all on the line every day, sometimes it is just not avoidable and we do give them high 5’s for great rides so it’s only fair. Joe Bravo gets it this week for not getting Scoria home for Christophe Clement. He was much the best and it just seemed like Joe did not know where to put him or when to move him.
Horses To Watch
Well Scoria might not be a bad one but we have another. Cali Star was coming out of some very live key races on Sunday. The Street Cry filly was stretching out off two sprints when taken back to last, she checked twice, steadied once and lost her momentum, eventually she came flying for second and should go much better next out.