As a major race on the Kentucky Derby trail, handicapping the Florida Derby involves two basic judgment calls: first, which of the proven stakes horses are most likely to benefit from the 1 1/8-mile distance, and second, do any of the up-and-comers look good enough to handle the biggest class test of their careers?
The logical starting point is to evaluate the horses who have already been knocking heads in the 1 1/16-mile preps at Gulfstream Park, the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth. Top performers in these events generally do well over the extra half-furlong of the Florida Derby.
But because of Gulfstream’s track configuration, 1 1/16-mile races end at the sixteenth pole, not the regular finish line. Hence sprinter types might find it easier to carry their speed through a short stretch run in races like the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth. In the Florida Derby, however, they could be vulnerable over the complete length of the stretch.
Gulfstream has typically played friendly to speed and stalkers rather than deep closers. Yet a race overloaded with early speed could end up playing into the hands of a classy closer, so as always, try to envision how the pace scenario shapes up.
Another factor to consider is whether a horse is making the second or third start off a holiday. Some Triple Crown aspirants may just be rounding into form now after their winter break. If so, they’re eligible to turn the tables on busier rivals who had a race-fitness edge in an earlier prep.
Given the depth of the sophomore class at Gulfstream, there’s usually at least one key allowance race every meet that is stakes-caliber in quality. Horses who’ve caught the eye in such a salty event are capable of rapid progress at this time of year. For an objective measure of how they stack up, compare the BRIS Speed ratings for the allowances and the stakes.