Updated March 26, 2021 - 1:00 pm
With only five weeks remaining until the Kentucky Derby, it’s past time we took part in the annual rite of contender list-making.
I’m actually glad I waited as long as I did. The entire Derby picture was upended last weekend when the undefeated Bob Baffert-trained Life Is Good suffered what appears to be a minor injury to a hind leg. That’s the good news, but the colt is off the Derby trail and is now expected to be aimed for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Many handicappers had the brilliant son of Into Mischief atop their list after his runaway victory in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita.
In his absence, my list is topped by Greatest Honour, who is likely to be the odds-on favorite in Saturday’s Florida Derby, a 1⅛-mile Grade 1 test for sophomores at Gulfstream Park.
The Shug McGaughey-trained son of Tapit has improved steadily over his six-race career, which includes victories in the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes and the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream in his last two starts. He has a beautiful long stride when he gets rolling in the stretch, suggesting the 1¼-mile distance of the Kentucky Derby will be right up his alley.
I think he’ll be very tough to beat in the Florida Derby, which will be televised on NBCSN beginning at 3 p.m. PT. But if you want to take a shot, I recommend Known Agenda.
His race in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in his 3-year-old debut was poor. He got away slowly, seemed uninterested in the proceedings in the middle stages and then rallied stoutly to finish 5th, just over 4 lengths behind winner Candy Man Rocket. But trainer Todd Pletcher then brought him to Gulfstream and restored some confidence with an impressive victory in a $75,000 allowance/optional claiming race.
It’s interesting to note that Known Agenda beat Greatest Honour at 1⅛th of a mile in their first meeting at Aqueduct in November, when Greatest Honour held an experience edge.
Dubai World Cup
Since when is a $12 million race an afterthought?
As of this year, apparently, as Saturday’s Dubai World Cup has attracted a relatively unheralded group of four U.S.-based runners to contest what is now the world’s second richest race following the debut last year of the $20 million Saudi Cup.
They are (fanfare please) Mystic Guide, a 4-year-old winner of the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga and the Razorback Stakes at Oaklawn Park, both Grade 3s; Jesus’ Team, who was won just three of his 14 starts but finished second in his past two vs. Grade 1 competition in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational and the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile; Sleepy Eyes Todd, fourth in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational and fifth in the Saudi Cup; and Title Ready, winner of five of 25 starts for trainer Dallas Stewart, who is coming off his first graded stakes victory in the Grade 3 Louisiana Stakes at the Fair Grounds in his last start.
Historically, bettors have been wise to focus on U.S.-based runners in the World Cup. They have taken down exactly half of the previous 24 runnings, but this group doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.
I’ll bet lightly on what I consider the top two U.S.-based horses — Mystic Guide and Jesus’ Team — in trifectas, with a couple horses from those other compass points — Magny Cours, making his first start on dirt for the brilliant French trainer Andres Fabre; Military Law, who chased a very hot pace in the Saudi Cup before wilting to sixth; and Thegreatcollection, a 7-year-old Florida-bred who ran on late to finish second in two rounds of the Maktoum Challenge.
You’ll have to rise early if you want to watch the earlier races on the card, which will be shown beginning at 5 a.m. PT from Meydan on FS1 and FS2 as well as TVG.
Ellis Starr’s Florida Derby analysis
Greatest Honour has impressively dispatched a total of 17 other horses in winning the Holy Bull Stakes by nearly six lengths in January then the Fountain of Youth Stakes by a length and one-half last month. There’s also no arguing Todd Pletcher always has a very strong hand with whatever horse he starts in the Florida Derby, having won four of the last eight editions. That’s why Known Agenda will get slight preference over Greatest Honour as the top win contender in this year’s race. In only the second start of his career last November and stretching out off a runner-up effort at six furlongs, Known Agenda won a race at the nine furlong trip of the Florida Derby and did so with the maturity of a much older horse as he battled head-and-head the entire last eighth of a mile, never giving up. After a poorer third place effort in the Remsen Stakes last December and following a poor fifth place finish in the Sam F. Davis Stakes in February, Known Agenda grew up big time to win last month at Gulfstream Park at the 1 1/8th mile distance, looking like a horse with a very bright future. After stalking in fourth position early, Known Agenda moved easily while four paths wide to the lead then opened up to win by 11 length. Not only was the 103 Equibase Speed Figure higher than the 101 figure Greatest Honour earned winning the Fountain of Youth Stakes one day later, there’s little doubt Known Agenda could have run faster if needed. Although already proven at the trip, Known Agenda has breeding to win this race and many more stakes for 3-year-olds. An easy STATS Race Lens query reveals his sire, Curlin, has had seven male 3-year-old stakes winners at distances from 9 to 10 furlongs from just 15 horses. That group includes Good Magic, Exaggerator and Vino Rosso. As such, I believe Known Agenda is going to take a big step forward to win the Florida Derby and stamp himself a strong contender for the Kentucky Derby as well.
Greatest Honour was defeated by Known Agenda by a head last November at the distance of the Florida Derby before winning three straight races including the two local preps for this race. In each win starting with the one on December 26 which earned a career-best 106 figure, Greatest Honour has shown the traits of a tremendous athlete, moving as the jockey asks and whooshing by the field. In the Fountain of Youth Stakes last month, Greatest Honour was five paths wide on the far turn when moving from eighth to fourth, then to the lead, while unthreatened in the late stages. Jose Ortiz has been aboard for the last two wins and rides back, and there will be a lot of adrenaline flowing in the race as his brother Irad Ortiz, Jr. will be aboard main threat Known Agenda. There’s little doubt Greatest Honour loves the Gulfstream Park surface where he is undefeated in three races, and the stretch battle between these two horses could be one for the ages.
Spielberg continues to earn points to run in the Kentucky Derby and has 17 points to date. With 40 points to the runner-up in the Florida Derby perhaps good enough to guarantee a spot in the gate in Louisville in May, that could be the key to this hard trying colt being competitive to the end. Although he earned a career best 103 figure breaking his maiden at a mile last November, Spielberg hasn’t improved since then although he did earn a 101 figure when winning the Los Alamitos Futurity in December. After a poor fourth in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes in January, Spielberg was clearly second by four lengths over the third horse in the Southwest Stakes in February although no match for winner Essential Quality, who won by a similar margin. One thing which is notable is in spite of all of Hall-of-Fame trainer Bob Baffert has achieved, he has never won the Florida Derby so when compared to the fact McGaughey and Pletcher have accounted for five of the last eight winners in this race, it appears Spielberg is going to have to greatly exceed his best effort to date to win the race although that is not an impossible task.
The rest of the field, with their best representative Equibase Speed Figures: Collaborate (97); Jirafales (86); Nova Rags (89); Papetu (96); Quantum Leap (92); Sigiloso (99); Soup and Sandwich (96); and Southern Passage (93).
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.