Florida Derby Preview

If you’re looking for an early lead-in on the Kentucky Derby, then there’s no better bellwether race than what goes down at Florida’s Gulfstream Park on Saturday at 5:40 PM ET. The Florida Derby runs, and its winners have a disproportionate impact at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. TheSportsNotebook takes a look at some past winners and zeroes in on the leading contenders this year.

Recent Derby winners to come out of Florida include Barbaro in 2006 and Big Brown in 2008. Quality Road was set to be the favorite at Churchill in 2009 before a late injury resulted in him scratching. Ice Box won at Florida in 2010 and clocked in second in the Kentucky Derby. If we want to go back a little further, horses like Thunder Gulch (1995), Unbridled (1990) and Spectacular Bid (1979) all won a pair of the Triple Crown races. Even if last year’s Florida Derby winner, Dialed In, flamed out at Churchill, there’s every reason to think we’re going to hear more of Saturday’s winner when they come down the stretch in Kentucky a little more than a month from now.

Union Rags is the early favorite at 6-5, Jockey Julian Leparoux will be in the saddle for a horse that won another Derby Prep, the Fountain of Youth Stakes, at this same track in late January. Union Rags won a stakes race at the prestigious late-summer meet in Saratoga last year. He finished second at the Breeders Cup. In fact, Union Rags has won all four of his non-Breeders Cup races—and since the BC is only the best collection of racing talent in the world, that says quite a big about why his odds are so strong.

El Padrino isn’t far behind, a strong 2-1 selection with Javier Castellano as jockey and Todd Pletcher the trainer. El Padrino brought home the Risen Star Stakes in Louisiana a little more than a month ago, finished third at a stakes race up at New York’s Aqueduct over Thanksgiving weekend and has cashed in a couple other non-descript races. I can certainly see why he’s a contender, although the resume doesn’t look nearly as strong as Union Rags—at least they’re not as close as the odds imply.

The race is seen as top-heavy between Union Rags and El Padrino, although Take Charge Indy is listed at a respectable 5-1. Calvin Borel, the jockey who’s won three Kentucky Derbies in the last five years, is in the saddle, although if Borel isn’t at Churchill, or his home track of Oaklawn in Arkansas, he’s not quite as magical. Take Charge Indy has yet to win a race in four starts, although one was at Breeders and two others were high-profile futurity. Still, no wins is no wins, and neither futurity offered challenges like the two favorites here will bring.

In a nine-horse field, these are the only contenders given a serious chance. None of the longshots have a name trainer or jockey that makes you stand up and take notice. Interestingly, Nick Zito, whose trained the last two winners of this race, does not have an entry on Saturday. I see little reason to bet against Union Rags, and at 6-5 that means there’s little reason to bet at all. But there’s plenty of reason to watch. We’re going to hear the name of this winner a lot in the next month-plus. The Florida Derby will be televised on both HR-TV and TVG, and most standard cable/satellite packages have at least one in the sports channel area. Post time is perfect—just a half-hour before the start of the Final Four, another even with a strong Kentucky flavor.