Now, we’re getting serious. Now, we’re into the varsity of Kentucky Derby prep races and with Saturday’s Florida Derby from Gulfstream Park, we’re going to see a healthy helping of this year’s best 3-year-olds.

Gouverneur Morris and John Velasquez
Even in a deep, talented Florida Derby field, it’s not a stretch to picture Gouverneur Morris and John Velasquez emerging victorious. Velasquez owns five Florida Derby victories in eight trips and no finish worse than third. (Image: Coglianese Photos)

The 1 1/8-mile Grade 1 Florida Derby offers a hearty helping of Derby Qualifying points: 100 to the winner and 40-20-10 to the rest of the superfecta. It also offers a healthy mix of running styles – both front-runners and closers can, and have, succeeded here – and the best field the 2020 Derby Trail has sent out to date.

Hall of Fame Winner’s List

This doesn’t factor in the Florida Derby’s stellar history. This race’s winners roll could fill an equine Hall of Fame wing by itself: Nashua, Northern Dancer, Alydar, Spectacular Bid, Holy Bull, Barbaro, and Nyquist to name a few.

The Florida Derby sent 24 of its runners to the Churchill Downs winner’s circle, more than any other Derby prep. Three Florida Derby winners since 2013 won the Kentucky Derby: Orb (2013), Nyquist (2016), and Always Dreaming (2017). That doesn’t include last year’s Florida Derby winner, Maximum Security, who crossed the finish line first but was disqualified.

Need more proof of pedigree? Along with those 24 Kentucky Derbys, Florida Derby runners romped to 19 Preakness Stakes and 16 Belmont Stakes titles. That’s 59 Triple Crown victories coming out of this race.

This is a serious race for handicappers and casual horse racing fans alike. The sheer amount of talent this race attracts means Florida Derby winners demand respect come Derby time, even in an outlier year like this one due to COVID-19 virus-related complications.

COVID-19 Never Far Away

That virus already claimed one participant: Hall-of-Fame jockey Javier Castellano, who took himself off Candy Tycoon and went into self-quarantine after testing positive for the coronavirus on Thursday.

With that, the question becomes, what should we look for in a Florida Derby champion? Start with pace. Four front-runners captured Florida Derbys in the last 10 years. But remember when we talked about different running styles winning this race? Here’s why it pays to pace handicap.

Over the past decade, three closers — Audible, Dialed In, and Ice Box — all came from behind to win. They did so during the three Florida Derby’s with sub-47-second half-mile fractions. If you think a fast early pace from horses such as Ete Indien, As Seen On Tv, and Gouverneur Morris will be too fast, lock into a stalker such as favorite Tiz the Law or Independence Hall. Otherwise, understand speed kills in this race.

Favorites Aren’t Usually Favored At Finish Line

Also, understand that favorites are vulnerable, but long shots are suicide in this race. Eight of the last 10 Florida Derby winners went off at 4.80/1 or shorter odds. The only favorite to win in the last 10 years was Audible in 2018 at 1.60/1. The reason for this is the high caliber of competition you find in this race. This tilts the field away from the likes of 6/5 favorite Tiz the Law and toward horses like Gouverneur Morris and – possibly, if the odds don’t drop too far from his 4/1 morning line – Ete Indien.

Speaking of Gouverneur Morris, he’s a Todd Pletcher trainee. Pletcher charges bode very well at Gulfstream, winning five Florida Derbys, including four of the last six (2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018). And who better to ride for the hottest trainer in this race than the hottest jockey in this race?

That would be John Velasquez. Since 2009, Velasquez rode in eight Florida Derbys, won five, and finished no worse than third in the other three. Did we mention Velasquez is riding Gouverneur Morris?

Shippers Often Get Sunk

Once you factor all that, look local. In 2016, Santa Anita-based Nyquist became the only carpetbagger in the last 10 years to roll into Gulfstream and steal a Florida Derby title from the locals. Then, look to see who’s coming off a victory, since the last seven Florida Derby winners came in with a last-out trip to the winner’s circle.

Put all those factors together and they lead back to one horse – Gouverneur Morris. He’s local, coming off an allowance win at Tampa Bay Downs, and has pace-setting and pace-pressing speed. That, along with Pletcher and Velasquez as his key connections, equals value, especially at an 8/1 price that likely will drop before post-time.

Florida Derby Odds

  1. As Seen On Tv, 12/1
  2. Shivaree, 30/1
  3. Disc Jockey, 20/1
  4. Soros, 30/1
  5. Gouverneur Morris, 8/1
  6. Ajaaweed, 20/1
  7. Tiz the Law, 6/5
  8. My First Grammy, 50/1
  9. Independence Hall, 9/2
  10. Candy Tycoon, 20/1
  11. Sassy But Smart, 50/1
  12. Ete Indien, 4/1