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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


There has never been a Florida Derby like the one that could be run Saturday at Gulfstream. I think I speak for the racing world when I pray that there will never be another one like this.

I say “could be run” because right up to the moment the latch is sprung, there is a chance Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis might intervene and call the whole thing off.

The City of Hallandale, where Gulfstream is located, has been pushing hard for this. Its arguments are not without merit, just as Gulfstream has a point when it counters that horses need to be exercised in order to maintain their health.

There also is a stay at home edict issued by Broward County, home of Gulfstream. Most of the Gulfstream personnel live in Broward. It remains to be seen how strictly this will be enforced.

To make matters worse, it was revealed Javier Castellano has tested positive for the virus. Gulfstream said he hasn’t been on track since March 15 but it is unknown if he has had contact with other members of the tight racing community.

So anything can happen right up to the start of the race. If anything might influence Gulfstream to get a race off on time, this might be it.

Barry Irwin in his newsletter to Team Valor clients quipped, “Gulfstream hasn’t gotten a race off on time since President Trump was married to an American woman.”

A fair question to ask is why the urgency to run the centerpiece event of the racing season as scheduled. The Kentucky Derby has been pushed back four months.

The Arkansas Derby was rescheduled for three weeks later. There is still no certainty that the Santa Anita Derby will be run on its appointed date next Saturday. The Blue Grass, Wood Memorial and UAE will not be run at all.

The Florida Derby has been positioned five weeks out from the big one in Louisville for almost two decades. This season, it is five months out. So to call it a Kentucky Derby prep really stretches the meaning of the term.

The late March date is ideal in normal years because horsemen begin to ship out to New York and Kentucky right about now. By a month from now, all the big names and horses have cleared out of Dodge. This won’t be the case in this ill-fated year.

NYRA is not accepting out-of-town horses. Moreover, who would want to ship into the epicenter of the pandemic at this point. Keeneland has canceled its meet and Churchill Downs will not accept horses until at least mid-April.

Asked this week if the dire circumstances will influence horsemen to stay longer in South Florida, Todd Pletcher responded, “Absolutely.” 

So what is the rush to squeeze in the Florida Derby with no spectators, no owners and no media? A month from now, the worst of the crisis could be past.

With nowhere else to go, top 3-year-olds will still be here and raring to go. Some lucky owner would get the chance to lead into the winner’s circle his or her Florida Derby winner, in many cases a once in a lifetime thrill.

Fans, who have been starving for an opportunity to see real live sports and wagering, could make this the most memorable Florida Derby ever. With other sports still down, media would be aching to find things to cover.

Having come this far, I hope everything goes off as scheduled on Saturday. But it would not be the end of the world if the Florida Derby is put on temporary hold.

The hiatus on racing in New York and Kentucky has led to an unusually talented group of 3-year-olds signed on to race. Four of the top 10 3YO’s in this week’s NTRA poll, some of whom would have gone elsewhere, head a field of 12.

The big horse is Tiz The Law, whose only defeat in four starts, a third in the Kentucky Jockey Club, could be excused by a Churchill Downs strip that was a bog from all-day rains and being blocked at a key rallying point. Still, he was beaten less than a length. He came back a monster in the Holy Bull, burying a decent field.

That effort was validated when Ete Indien rebounded to win the Fountain of Youth, against an arguably better field, by eight-plus lengths. Ete Indien is back for another shot at Tiz The Law.

Independence Hall was a wise guy Derby horse off three huge wins in New York but his bandwagon popped a flat tire in the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay when he was run down late by Ete Indien’s stablemate Sole Volante. It was his first try around two turns, which raised questions about his scope.

Michael Trombetta said there are reasons not to take that race at face value, citing loss of a shoe and chasing a fast pace. “I don’t know how far he is going to take us but he has tremendous upside,” the trainer said.

The sleeper and my selection is Gouverneur Morris. I’ve been on him since he broke maiden by 9 at Saratoga sprinting, which doesn’t figure to be his forte. The still sidelined Maxfield pulled an Arazi on him in the Breeders’ Futurity but he persevered to hold the place.

Todd Pletcher skipped the Breeders’ Cup and didn’t bring him back until a prep at Tampa Bay last month. While appearing to have plenty left in the tank, he inhaled the well regarded Untitled and missed the track record by a fraction of a second.

It’s worth noting Todd prepped Kentucky Derby winners Always Dreaming and Super Saver over the demanding Tampa Bay track.

The long lead time actually works well for handicappers. There is no need to leave anything in the tank. So everyone should be all in. Whoever emerges on top will have legitimate claim to be the best three year old in America not in Bob Baffert’s barn.

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