Kentucky Derby Prep Analysis: The Florida Derby is Gunnevera’s race to lose


Gulfstream Park | Race 14 | Post Time 6:40 p.m. (ET) | Go To The FREE TimeformUS PPs 

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Gulfstream Park’s Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby arguably has been the most productive final-round Kentucky Derby prep in terms of translating into recent success on the first Saturday in May. Winners of the Florida Derby have gone on to take the Run for the Roses in four of the past 11 years. That said, this year’s final Florida prep has not come up quite as strong as many past editions. In fact, the favored Gunnevera is the only graded stakes winner in a field that is really lacking depth. (Note that the second choice on the morning line, Battalion Runner, is expected to scratch.)

The TimeformUS Pace Projector is predicting that this race will feature a fast early pace set by Three Rules (#10). State of Honor (#1) is expected to be his closest early pursuer, but I wonder if his connections are looking for him to rate given that they’re removing blinkers. Gunnevera (#11) should take up his usual early position toward the back of the pack.

Let’s go through the entire field:

#1, STATE OF HONOR (8-1): The Tampa Bay Derby runner-up was no match for the vastly improved Tapwrit last time, but he did do well to hold on for second while fending off the closers in the late stages of that race. While he still has only a lone victory against maidens in the win column, this horse has yet to run a poor race since being switched to dirt by Mark Casse at the start of his 3-year-old campaign, placing in three straight Kentucky Derby preps. Blinkers were added for both of his starts at Tampa, and while they give him a newfound focus, they also caused him to become more aggressive and headstrong early in those races. They now remove the blinkers as he stretches out an extra sixteenth of a mile in an attempt to get him to settle more kindly in the early going. I have to admire his consistency, but I think he’ll be hard pressed to deal with the speedy Three Rules and hold off Gunnevera late. I’ll primarily use him underneath in exactas and trifectas. 

#2, TALK LOGISTICS (30-1): He was no match for the best 3-year-olds in Florida in the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth. While he did finish within range of State of Honor back in January, it would appear that stretching out to two turns since then has not agreed with this horse.

#3, CHARLIE THE GREEK (50-1): He was no match for Always Dreaming in an allowance. He’s taking a huge step up in class and has yet to run fast enough to even get a whiff of the superfecta against this field. I’ll pass.

#4, ALWAYS DREAMING (4-1): This Todd Pletcher-trained colt is the most polarizing runner in this race. If you’re a fan, you’re likely making the case that, “He’s won with something left,” or, “He’ll run faster when he has competition,” or, “He has such a beautiful stride.” That’s fine if you believe in those statements, but the data emphatically state that Always Dreaming does not have a prayer against the likes of Gunnevera, Three Rules, and State of Honor.

Horses who are allowed to set slow paces generally come away from those efforts looking better than they actually are. Each of Always Dreaming’s last two wins has been accomplished with the benefit of slow early fractions (indicated by blue color-coding in TimeformUS PPs). He drew away by more than 11 lengths at Tampa, but he did so over a group of runners who appear destined for the claiming ranks. His allowance victory at Gulfstream was similarly lopsided, but just look at the past performances of Charlie the Greek and Unbridled Holiday, who are also in this race. No matter how comfortably he appeared to do it, does Always Dreaming really deserve credit for beating those horses by four lengths? The TimeformUS Race Ratings perfectly capture the class discrepancy that this horse presents. The ratings of his last two starts were 87 and 95, and he now finds himself in a legitimate graded stakes race that has received a preliminary rating of 111.

So, the question becomes: Can he run faster? His most recent TimeformUS Speed Figure is marked with a “p,” indicating that an extremely slow pace may have contributed to a lower speed figure. It would be tempting to say that a faster pace could lead to a higher speed figure, but there are other things to consider. Always Dreaming has run his best races when he’s been contesting the pace. He’s never faced a pace rival like Three Rules going two turns. Where is the evidence that he can withstand that sort of pressure and turn back his more seasoned foes? I don’t see it, and I think this horse is a terrible bet at his morning-line odds of 4-1.

#5, QUINIENTOS (50-1): He was no match for Gunnevera or Three Rules in the Fountain of Youth despite getting a solid pace to close into. He’s an outsider once again.

#6, COLEMAN ROCKY (30-1): He’s run his best races on turf, and his lone competitive dirt race came over a sloppy track against a considerably weaker field than this one. He is yet another runner who is tremendously overmatched. 

#7, UNBRIDLED HOLIDAY (30-1): While he was never beating Always Dreaming last time, he did work out a tougher trip than that rival. He was rating behind Always Dreaming’s slow pace (color-coded in blue) while racing wide every step of the way. Unfortunately for him, he has to do far better than just turning the tables on that rival and appears to be in over his head. 

#8, IMPRESSIVE EDGE (12-1): He defeated allowance foes by more than eight lengths last time, but that was one of the weakest groups of runners to contest a race at the N1X level during the entire Gulfstream meet. In his only start against legitimate graded-stakes foes, he was soundly defeated, finishing some eight lengths behind Three Rules in the Swale. Perhaps Three Rules is going to regress slightly as he stretches out to nine furlongs here, but there’s little evidence that Impressive Edge is supposed to improve with this added distance. The one thing he does have going for him is his trainer, since Dale Romans gets a solid 85 TimeformUS Trainer Rating with runners trying a route for the first time. At best, he could earn a minor award.

#9, BATTALION RUNNER (3-1): Barring the unforeseen withdrawal of Always Dreaming, Todd Pletcher is expected to scratch this horse.

#10, THREE RULES (8-1): It’s hard not to admire this plucky son of Gone Astray, who has outrun his modest pedigree to contend for a spot in the Kentucky Derby. While the spotlight was fixed on Gunnevera coming out of the Fountain of Youth, this colt’s effort in that race deserved more attention than it received. The pace of the Fountain of Youth was fast (indicated by red color-coding in the PPs), and Gunnevera was the only runner contesting that pace to be around at the finish. The two horses who were racing up on the pace with him early, Irish War Cry and Takaful, were beaten 21 and 27 lengths.

Three Rules has run well in both of his 3-year-old starts, and the speed figures confirm that. His TimeformUS Speed Figures of 114 and 110 for those races make him the second-fastest horse in this race and a serious threat to win one of these prep races. However, can he sustain that progression while stretching out to a mile and an eighth? He seems like more of a sprinter/miler type, and a projected fast pace will only compromise him further. That said, I have the utmost respect for his talent, and he figures to go off at a decent price, with Always Dreaming likely to snatch away some money that otherwise would have gone his way. He’ll be prominently featured in my play.

#11, GUNNEVERA (9-5): He is quite simply the most likely winner of this Florida Derby. I acknowledge that he got a perfect trip in the Fountain of Youth, circling the field in a situation where the pace was collapsing, but he still put in a massive effort that day. After all, he didn’t just win that race, he drew off by nearly six lengths while earning a TimeformUS Speed Figure of 119. A repeat of that effort could make him one of the favorites – if not the outright favorite – on the first Saturday in May.

Javier Castellano has developed quite a rapport with this horse. In four starts aboard him, he’s only made one mistake, when attempting to keep him closer to the pace in the Holy Bull before inadvertently riding him into traffic on the far turn. He learned from that error and kept him in the clear for the entire far turn run of the Fountain of Youth, orchestrating a carbon copy of the winning move he made in the Delta Downs Jackpot last year. I know some may still question whether this small Florida operation is ready for the national spotlight on Derby Day, but it certainly appears that this horse can get his connections there. This is one favorite whom I’m not trying to beat.


Gunnevera (#11) looks like he’s too much for this field to handle. I don’t expect him to be a particularly appetizing price, but I do think this is a great spot to take a shot at trifectas and other exotic wagers. That is primarily due to my mostly against the morning-line second choice, Always Dreaming, and strongly preferring Gunnevera’s vanquished Fountain of Youth rival, Three Rules (#10).

Exacta: 11 with 1,8,10

Trifecta: 11 with 1,10 with 1,2,4,5,7,8,10

Trifecta: 10 with 11 with 1,2,4,5,7,8

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