As we barrel toward the conclusion of a Kentucky Derby trail that has failed to produce a standout performance, many racing fans are pinning their hopes on this Florida Derby field. The Fountain of Youth was generally considered to be one of the most promising stepping-stones on the road to the 2019 Run for the Roses, and the consequential players from that race are back in the starting gate here.
The major story coming out of the Fountain of Youth was the pace, as Hidden Scroll laid down historically fast fractions over a racetrack that was not yielding particularly fast times. That frenzied early tempo took its toll on him late, allowing late runners Code of Honor and Bourbon War to pass him in the stretch.
The Pace Projector is once again predicting a fast pace in this Florida Derby, but there are some caveats. Hidden Scroll (#1), owing to his unbelievably high 150 TimeformUS Early Pace Rating, is predicted to be well out in front of the field early. Some believe that he is simply a run-off and that Javier Castellano will be unable to harness his speed. Bill Mott does not concur, and has openly stated that he believes Hidden Scroll will rate if the situation calls for a change in tactics.
While there is no speed horse in this race with the early gas of Fountain of Youth contestant Gladiator King, there are a number of horses with tactical running styles. Therefore, it’s somewhat surprising that the late-runner Code of Honor (#9) is predicted to be in closest proximity to the early leader, sharing that chasing position with stretch-out sprinter Bodexpress (#8). The horses that one would have expected to keep Hidden Scroll honest on the front end are longshot Hard Belle (#6) and sprinter Maximum Security (#7), yet they are occupying mid-pack positions on the Pace Projector. This is primarily due to the fact that both are exiting races that featured relatively slow paces, and they may have trouble keeping up if we see another pace scenario similar to that in the Fountain of Youth.
Let’s go through the field:
#1, HIDDEN SCROLL (5-2): Opinions around this colt are polarized. Some believe that Hidden Scroll is truly a sprinter, one with unbridled early speed who cannot be harnessed in the early stages of his races. Yet others have faith that the Fountain of Youth pace situation was merely an aberration, and that a normal race flow in the Florida Derby will lead to his coronation.
I believe it’s important to dissect the Fountain of Youth pace to understand what actually transpired that day. After breaking a step slowly, giving up about a length of position to some rivals, Joel Rosario dropped his hands and allowed Hidden Scroll to race up into a forward early position. The problems occurred when sprinter Gladiator King burst from the starting stalls as if he was set to go five furlongs, rather than 1 1/16 miles. Hidden Scroll was already keen and racing in the bridle by the time he engaged Gladiator King on the clubhouse turn, and Rosario chose to allow him to continue at that clip rather than restrain him. The pair of them set unreasonably fast fractions. The TimeformUS Pace Figures for the race are incredible. The 166 figures for the first two fractions represent one of the fastest paces you’ll find in a dirt race at the distance. Those numbers are 29 points faster than the corresponding figures in the Holy Bull – another closer-dominated affair – and the half-mile pace figure was even faster than Justify’s opening half in last year’s Kentucky Derby. The fact that Hidden Scroll’s TimeformUS Speed Figure was set at a 120 – ten points higher than the raw number for his final time, and 1 point higher than his debut figure – corroborates the notion that this pace was exceptionally fast.
Pace meltdowns tend to fool even the sharpest handicappers. Hidden Scroll was losing ground in the stretch of the Fountain of Youth because he had run the first portion of the race as if it were a sprint. The result does not have serious implications for his ability to win top races under normal circumstances, nor does it suggest that he would be better suited to sprint distances. In these situations, we must force ourselves to look beyond the results. Hidden Scroll is not built like a sprinter, nor is he bred to be one. He is by versatile sire Hard Spun out of an Empire Maker dam who is a half-sister to an accomplished turf marathon runner. Bill Mott would not send out a horse to debut going a mile on the dirt if he believed that runner would ultimately be bound for sprints. Based on the evidence, Hidden Scroll is unlikely to have a problem handling 1 1/8 miles under normal circumstances.
While none of Saturday’s rivals are as fast as Gladiator King, there are a few competitors who can keep Hidden Scroll honest on the front end. His rail draw basically ensures that Javier Castellano will be forced to leave the gate with the intent to attain a forward early position. Ideally, he will be able to make the lead through moderate fractions. Yet if one of his pace rivals is intent on outrunning him to the front, Castellano will likely attempt to rate outside of another horse. Hidden Scroll seemed to be getting more comfortable sitting off the pace in a recent workout, and Mott believes the colt is up to the challenge.
However the trip unfolds, I’m confident that Hidden Scroll is the most talented runner in the field, and horses of this variety usually find a way to win. The selection.
#2, CURRENT (15-1): This colt is bred to handle the dirt but he’s shown far more promise on turf thus far in his career. If the pace does heat up on the front end, he is one of the candidates to take advantage. Yet he will garner some support due to his connections, and I feel there are more reliable closers in the lineup. Furthermore, Todd Pletcher’s statistics with this move are hardly encouraging. According to DRF Formulator, over the past five years Pletcher is 1 for 21 (5 percent, $0.70 ROI) with horses going from turf to dirt in graded stakes races, and just three horses in that sample hit the board. Pass.
#3, HARVEY WALLBANGER (15-1): It is now generally accepted that the Holy Bull was one of the weakest prep races run this year, and Harvey Wallbanger received a perfect trip on his way to victory that day. It’s possible that he may benefit from another favorable setup here, but he would need to significantly improve on his last speed figure to merely hit the board. Exotics possibility.
#4, BOURBON WAR (7-2): It’s no surprise that his bandwagon ballooned following his runner-up finish in the Fountain of Youth. This is the time of year when racing fans gravitate toward horses that launch closing moves or record fast final quarter times. Many believe these aspects of a colt’s performance are indicators that he will relish the added distance of the Kentucky Derby. Sometimes that turns out to be true, but performances like the one Bourbon War put forth in the Fountain of Youth can be misleading. Extreme pace situations always benefit horses like him, and I’m concerned that he will be overbet in this spot on the basis of that performance.
While the TimeformUS Speed Figure for his last effort was significantly lower than the one assigned to Hidden Scroll, a 115 is still a respectable number in the context of this year’s Derby trail. Bourbon War’s 110 Late Pace Rating is easily the highest in the field and would make him especially dangerous if the Pace Projector is correct in its characterization of a swift early tempo. However, it remains to be seen if that fast pace will develop given the uncertainty around Hidden Scroll’s early challengers. If they set moderate fractions, Bourbon War may need to take another step forward to earn the victory this time. A potential underlay.
#5, EVERFAST (20-1): His dismal performance in the Fountain of Youth exposed the Holy Bull for what it was – a very slow race. This colt can be somewhat unpredictable, but a competitive effort in a race of this caliber would still be a major surprise. Pass.
#6, HARD BELLE (50-1): He’s not as fast as stablemate Gladiator King, but he may attempt to utilize similar tactics on the front end. While I respect the connections’ right to participate, it would be a shame if a horse with no chance to win had a significant impact on the outcome of this race. Pass.
#7, MAXIMUM SECURITY (9-2): This rags-to-riches colt is the intriguing newcomer to the local 3-year-old division, having ascended from a bottom-level maiden claimer to Grade 1 company in the span of just over three months. It’s astounding that Jason Servis risked this colt for a mere $16,000 in his debut given the potential that he must have known was latent within him. He’s been protected in a pair of weak starter allowance races in both starts since, and has absolutely dominated his competition. He earned his way into this race with that 18-length triumph going seven furlongs last month, earning a respectable 112 TimeformUS Speed Figure. The waters get much deeper here, but it would be unwise to disregard this colt’s talent, especially considering the miraculous feats of his trainer at the current Gulfstream meet.
The major question for Maximum Security as he steps up into Grade 1 company is not one of speed, but of stamina. His compact build and quick, efficient stride lead me to believe that he will be better suited to sprint distances. However, his pedigree tells another story. He’s by Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner New Year’s Day and is out of a three-quarter-sister to two-time Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Flat Out. Furthermore, his dam has already produced a dirt route winner in this colt’s decent half-sibling Prince Tito. I remain somewhat skeptical that a horse from any stable can make the gargantuan leap in class in such a short period of time, but this barn scares me. Using defensively.
#8, BODEXPRESS (30-1): This maiden colt was the first to flatter Hidden Scroll’s debut, as he clearly validated the speed figure of that race when he returned on Feb. 16. While I actually do think he has some talent, this is an awfully ambitious spot for a horse that has yet to earn his first career victory. Pass.
#9, CODE OF HONOR (3-1): Hidden Scroll and Bourbon War may have garnered greater accolades in the immediate aftermath of the Fountain of Youth, but this colt’s victory should not be diminished. He had previously established his quality in an eye-catching performance in last year’s Champagne as he rallied to be second despite a stumbling start. Plenty of supporters jumped off the bandwagon after a poor effort in the Mucho Macho Man. In retrospect, he may not have been totally fit for that race following a setback, and he also got the wrong trip moving into the fastest portion of the race.
Code of Honor bounced back to top form last time and may have even improved on his Champagne performance when winning the Fountain of Youth. He did receive an excellent ground-saving trip from an advantageous inside post position that day. Yet he was closer to the pace than Bourbon War and moved sooner than that foe. While he may not get another pace meltdown ahead of him, John Velazquez has options with this colt. The Pace Projector indicates that he is fast enough to race up into a stalking position in the early going, so he can make his own trip. The biggest concern for me is the added ground. There’s not much stamina breeding on the bottom side of his pedigree, and it’s unclear if progeny of Noble Mission will improve going this far. On the other hand, Shug McGaughey has a knack for getting horses to keep improving and he’s done this before with Orb. The main threat.
#10, UNION’S DESTINY (30-1): If you’re looking for a closer to pick up pieces behind some of the top contenders, I would argue that this colt is a better option than shorter-priced runners like Current and Harvey Wallbanger. Both of those colts carry greater name recognition, but this longshot ran the same speed figure that Harvey Wallbanger earned in his Holy Bull victory when closing to be sixth in the Fountain of Youth last time. Not only is he improving, but he earned that career-best number last time despite going extremely wide around the turns. Throw him into trifectas and superfectas.
#11, GARTER AND TIE (15-1): It appears that this Florida-bred’s form is starting to decline after he plateaued over the winter. He was supposed to offer up more of a late kick in a weak Holy Bull last time, and is difficult to endorse off that performance. Pass.
Hidden Scroll (#1) is the most likely winner of this race and I’m not picking against him. Yet how short of a price should we be willing to accept? While I believe he deserves to get bet down slightly off his morning line odds, I would not be willing to swallow anything shorter than 8-5. It’s difficult to recommend a win wager if he drifts lower than that, but I would still key him on the top of exotic wagers, since I think we can insert some value underneath. Code of Honor is my primary alternative, and I’ll mostly use him in the second and third slots.
Exacta: 1 with 9
Trifecta: 1 with 4,9 with 3,4,7,9,10
Trifecta: 1 with 3,7,10 with 9
Superfecta: 1 with 9 with 4,7,10 with 2,3,4,7,10,11