Triple Crown: Florida Derby picks and analysis

The $1 million-dollar, nine-furlong Florida Derby has produced a whopping 25 Kentucky Derby winners as the most prolific prep race in North America since 1952. A Grade 1 race offering one-hundred Kentucky Derby points to the winner, this tune-up most recently set up Mage, a runner-up to the winner Forte, for a win at Churchill that his connections will never forget. While Forte was not able to reach the starting gate in Kentucky due to veterinary concerns, he likely would have been the post-time favorite, further extending the dominance of Gulfstream runners on the Triple Crown trail. 

With an 11-horse field this year, Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes winner Dornoch is pointed to Keeneland’s Blue Grass for his final prep, skipping out on this last Gulfstream effort and leaving it open for others to capture. In Dornoch’s absence, two runners from the Grade 3 Holy Bull will return to this track, including its winner Hades, as well as two returning strong finishers from the Fountain of Youth among plenty of new shooters. 

The early 8/5 morning line favorite is Todd Pletcher’s Fierceness, who most recently finished third to Hades in the Holy Bull but won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in the fall. Pletcher has a Florida Derby-record seven wins, with one of his top jockeys John Velazquez leading the way all time with five. It is no surprise then to see them together again on Fierceness, one of two Pletcher entries in what could end up being the prep race to look out for into May. 

Breaking from the ten post here, Fierceness was not able to catch a front running Hades in the Holy Bull over this track in early February after getting bumped at the start and recovering well into third. Pletcher viewed the bump as too much to overcome for Fierceness. 

“With Fierceness his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile was so impressive. He trained so well leading up to the Holy Bull I think expectations were just so high for him, and I think people kind of lose sight a little bit of exactly what went on in the race,” Pletcher said. “I’ve watched the replay several times and he got sandwiched pretty hard leaving the gate, and then Johnny had to use him quite a bit to get to the position we wanted. I think that because our expectations were so high, we just thought he could overcome anything. I think it was a legitimate excuse.” 

He still has the top performance of anyone in this field in his Breeder’s Cup Juvenile, and should have better chances here stalking the likely leader Hades. The Holy Bull pace was a bit on the slower side, and with some potential pace pressure in longshot Seminole Chief, it will be difficult for Hades to get away with the same fractions. This is still one that needs to prove that his Juvenile can be more the norm than the exception as a lightly raced colt with just four career starts. 

Hades starts from the two hole at 7/2 and should be aimed towards the early lead once again. Returning jockey Paco Lopez will be hard pressed to get a similar trip as in the Holy Bull, and it is possible that this gelding by Awesome Slew-The Shady Lady, by Quality Road took advantage of a perfect scenario in that race. A 3-for-3 lifetime record will be put to the test here, with Hades having to stretch out a bit to nine furlongs despite his running style being more geared towards shorter distance. If he is able to avoid pace pressure, the distance may not be an issue, but this is a tougher group than the Holy Bull with a few runners that are starting to mature into their own at the right time.

Shug McGaughey’s Conquest Warrior, who has two wins in three career starts with his most recent being an allowance victory over this course, is 3-1 on the morning line. Even winning that race by a dominant five lengths at nine furlongs shouldn’t be enough to be favored over Hades or even Fierceness at post time, but the $1,000,000 yearling price tag is a representation of his upside. Conquest Warrior has shown a powerful closing kick in his last two races and hopes for some pace to take aim at here with no clear distance limitations. 

Hades Holy Bull
Hades won the Holy Bull Stakes. Photo by Angelo Lieto.

This could be one that mirrors the maturation of Risen Star winner Sierra Leone, who had a similar running style and lofty price tag, albeit without the stakes experience. The difference here is that there is still a gap in performance and speed figures to be a winner even in this more average field, but continued improvement should at least have Jose Ortiz pushing this colt with the top finishers in the stretch. 

The immediate returnees from Gulfstream’s Fountain of Youth Stakes are Le Dom Bro and Frankie’s Empire who ran a solid two-three in that points race behind Dornoch. Even with Dornoch controlling a slower pace against what appeared to be a lesser field, Le Dom Bro gave him all he could handle from start to finish, sitting in second the whole way at 27/1 odds. That race was by far his best career effort to this point and could signify a willingness by his connections to push him towards the lead again here. While he may not have the speed to keep up with Hades, any type of pressure in the early goings could set this one up for a deeper closer. 

Frankie’s Empire could be one of those closers breaking from the inside post at 12/1, gaining ground from five lengths back in the Fountain of Youth to only lose by two at the wire. He has consistently shown improvement into his three-year-old season and is a bit more seasoned than the others in here with eight races already under his belt. Frankie’s Empire might be peaking at the right time and is a consistent finisher who would most benefit from quicker fractions.

Flying a bit further under the radar than the returning longshots is Grand Mo the First, third in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby three weeks ago and with three starts at Gulfstream out of five career tries. Grand Mo the First nabbed 15 Derby points with that third, and would likely gain enough to get into the Churchill gate with another third or a fourth here. He has yet to finish worse than third in his career, and should be sitting mid-pack in this one against an overall stronger field than in Tampa. Sold three times and most recently as a two-year-old for $335,000, Grand Mo the First doesn’t match the price of Conquest Warrior or Pletcher’s second entry Bail Us Out who went for $700,000 last spring, but he has shown up with workmanlike efforts this year even if winning in this spot feels difficult. Another strong performance could leave his connections with a difficult decision in May and the chance to see if there is more room to improve for this colt.

This year’s Florida Derby group may not look quite as strong overall as years past, but the upside of some lightly-raced runners should become more apparent after they hit the wire. As one of the strongest Derby preps historically, the winner and top performers here cannot be taken lightly if they reach Kentucky, with the main contenders Fierceness and Hades leading the way. A bit of pace pressure from Seminole Chief or Le Dom Bro could be enough to set up Fierceness in the stretch, or a less proven closer like Conquest Warrior here. As the points races begin winding down, this will likely be the final opportunity for these entries to get a shot at the Run for the Roses, so a strong finish here is vital for the participating connections aiming at bigger things. 

Post time for the Grade I Florida Derby is 6:42 EDT as the twelfth race on Gulfstream Park’s Saturday card.


1. #9 Conquest Warrior (3-1) 

2. #10 Fierceness (8-5)

3. #2 Hades (7-2)  

4. #4 Grand Mo the First (15-1)