HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, April 3, 2022 – In relation to the “other” big sports event of Saturday, host Ernie John Jr. summed up the epic Duke- North Carolina clash by sharing: “the NCAA Tournament never disappoints.”
It’s not a huge stretch to believe that the same description could be applied to Saturday’s Florida Derby. To be sure, some finishes were disappointing, but that’s the nature of horse racing.
Beyond the colossal non-effort of the recent Tampa Bay Derby winner, the Florida Derby, lynchpin of Gulfstream Park’s championship meet did its job. On balance, the first three horses under the wire gave fans what they came to see, a formful, exciting result.
The result might not have clarified the Triple Crown picture five weeks hence but does add to the drama as the trifecta finishers gave the Classics three horses that proved they rightfully belong in the Derby conversation.
Of course, the Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass and Wood Memorial remain and those events undoubtedly will complete the picture of May’s first Saturday. Derby fans and horseplayers could hardly ask for anything more.
Four major contenders attracted the widest coverage and majority of betting dollars and, of those, only Classic Causeway proved a major disappointment. He caught his usual flyer away from the barrier, only this time was challenged by stiffer, faster competition.
With Fountain of Youth winner Simplification not allowing Classic Causeway a breather, the Tampa Derby hero wilted under pressure and gave way too suddenly with too much race still to be run. Indeed, Irad Ortiz Jr. took care of the colt thereafter. They finished last.
It fortunately does not appear to be a physical issue, trainer Brian Lynch telling colleague Ron Flatter Sunday morning that his colt scoped clean, the connections will regroup and decide whether they want to remain on the trail. Apparently short rest and a near-bullet drill drained whatever reserves were there.
Simplification did go on with it, but strides after reaching the front was challenged immediately by Pappacap under anxious, overly aggressive handling from Edwin Gonzalez who briefly had an opportunity to sit behind dueling leaders, opting instead to join the fray three-across wide.
As the race continued to unfold approaching the five-sixteenths mark, Tyler Gaffalione asked White Abarrio to engage and the whitish gray obliged, bounding away leaving headstretch and remaining clear despite the attempted late heroics of Charge It.
While White Abarrio won the race on the square, trip handicappers could make an argument that the inexperienced Charge It was best as the race was run. Hitting the gate at the start, his backstretch run was uneventful until Luis Saez asked him to engage fully.
After straightening away, the green Charge It, making his two-turn debut in only his third lifetime start, lugged in twice in the lane, was straightened away nearing the finish, made a late surge as if to seriously challenge before drifting in again after switching to his inside lead.
In the end, the winning margin was 1-1/4 lengths over Charge It, who had a length on a very game Simplification. But what are handicappers to make of a final furlong in a pedestrian 14.09 and final three furlongs in an un-derby-like 39.96? The final time was 1:50.64.
In fairness to all Florida Derby-day runners, an intermittent albeit significant headwind was in play throughout the program which likely affected final fractions adversely.
Parenthetically, there was a time when wind direction and velocity were noted in official result charts. Horseplayers and horsemen would appreciate a resumption of a practice that informs race times. Helpful information gives all stakeholders more confidence, a good thing for all.
By comparison, the most impressive three-year-old stakes winner on the afternoon may have been G2 Gulfstream Oaks winner Kathleen O, now undefeated in four starts, with a 2-3/4s score under confident Javier Castellano handling in 1:43.76, a final sixteenth in a race-horse-like 06.13.
Atmospherics notwithstanding, whether it is his affinity for Gulfstream Park, an ability to handle the trip, or both, Gufo made a very impressive five-year-old debut, making an eye-catching rush to win the G2 Pan American going away under quintessential Joel Rosario last-run handling.
Whether it was six graded events, coupled with four listed stakes, inclement weather that drifted north, sparing Hallandale Beach, or a 14-race program that produced high churn due to a bevy of winning favorites, it added up to $37-million on the day.
Or maybe it just was the racing gods were kind. TSG officials announced they finally will address what was promised last year, namely installing a needed, new turf course and the installation of timing poles as traditional electronic timers will replace Gulfstream’s trouble-plagued Trakus system.
LOCALS TAKE ON AMERICA’S BEST, AND WIN
With apologies to Pegasus Day, the Florida Derby is Gulfstream Park’s biggest stage. And who were its stars this year?
For this day, and for this season, two Florida-based horsemen did, although maybe the term locals could be a bit of a stretch. Saffie Joseph Jr was born in Barbados and made South Florida his racing home after coming to America.
Saturday was the culmination of two dreams for Joseph, one for winning the most celebrated event on the South Florida racing calendar, the other winning a training title at the championship meet that ends today at the direct expense of perennial titlist Todd Pletcher, who Joseph admittedly idolizes.
The other local is a rider, a true local boy, born and reared in Davie, Broward County horse country, about a 20-minute drive from the racetrack. But it’s hard to describe Tyler Gaffalione as a local anymore, not as the winner of seven Churchill riding titles and four from Keeneland.
But a one-for-the-thumb day, ending with a race you dreamed about since you were seven years old? As the saying goes, priceless.
Arkansas Derby and Jeff Ruby to follow
this is a live column and will be updated periodically