In the weeks leading up to the Florida Derby (G1) trainer Todd Pletcher made no secret about how high he was on Kentucky Derby prospect Always Dreaming. He told just about anyone who’d listen he’d be formidable in The Florida Derby, and that he was not nearly as concerned about the slow time of the colt’s last race as many handicappers were. The connections of Always Dreaming were equally high on him — and now we all know why.
Always Dreaming was coming off an optional claiming/n1x win over the Gulfstream strip run in a sluggish 1:53.44 for a mile and an eighth. The fractions were :51.65, 1:16.82, 1:41.17 — not exactly eye-catching. He ran a 9 on Thoro-Graph that day, which doesn’t exactly scream Kentucky Derby.
Pletcher explained going into the Florida Derby that Always Dreaming found himself on the lead that day and the lack of pace caused the slow time.
Apparently, he was right.
In the Florida Derby, Always Dreaming sat a perfect trip stalking pacesetter Three Rules. Jockey Johnny Velazquez moved at precisely the right time just after the half-mile pole and found himself looking back for some competition midway on the far turn.
There wasn’t any.
Always Dreaming was really the only one moving at that point and was doing it easily. The race was pretty much over. Over a very honest, but blistering fast track, Always Dreaming traversed the nine furlongs in 1:47.47 and he finished in racehorse time, even considering the speedway surface.
With the win, Always Dreaming has assured himself a spot in the starting gate come the first Saturday in May, barring anything unforeseen. That said, he really didn’t beat all that much and was, indeed, aided by a fast track and picture-perfect ride by Velazquez.
The disappointment of the race had to be Gunnevera.
I thought Gunnevera would bounce off his new top figure and big forward move in The Fountain of Youth (G2) and it looks like he did. To me, it looks like he peaked in The Fountain of Youth and that was the best he has to offer. While very good, it wasn’t a Kentucky Derby-winning race, and it came a bit too early.
In The Florida Derby, Gunnevera was saddled with the dreaded 11 post. He moved in one to the 10 with the scratch of Pletcher’s other runner, Battalion Runner, who reportedly will go in the Wood memorial (G1) this coming weekend.
The 10-hole is still a tough draw at a mile and an eighth at Gulfstream and it prompted rider Javier Castellano to drop back sharply to last out of the gate and move toward the rail — but the inside was not the place to be Saturday on the main track at Gulfstream. If you watched the races, many riders made obvious efforts to get off the rail and be out in the middle of the track.
Castellano is way too smart to have made such a mistake.
Gunnevera did launch his rally, but it was far less explosive than the one we saw in the Fountain of Youth. He got up for third, seven lengths behind Always Dreaming. State of Honor trained by Mark Casse split the two to finish second.
The Florida Derby came up weak this year. Despite the Grade 1 status and $1 million-dollar purse, Gulfstream Park officials had to coax some runners into the field. That caused the race to have several “fillers” that had no legitimate chance on paper.
The top three favorites made up the trifecta and the only horse that looks capable of making noise when they Run for the Roses come May is the winner. But make no mistake: he will need another big step forward to do it.
He is lightly raced and improving and also is reported to have outworked some of Pletcher’s better-known and more highly-regarded runners, so a forward move in May is entirely possible.