With only a handful of tracks holding live racing, many in the racing world are looking forward to this weekend's Grade 1 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. It's hard to forget though, that the race which is normally one of the most critical stops on the route to the first Saturday in May won't necessarily have the same impact on a September Kentucky Derby.
Trainer Todd Pletcher, who will saddle Gouverneur Morris in the Florida Derby, said he's taking things as they come for each of his horses.
“Right now we're not making any long-term plans,” he said. “We're taking it day-by-day and waiting for updates. We're fortunate to be in the position where we have good, safe training conditions here at Palm Beach Downs and we'll stay here as long as we need to. I don't think you can have any firm plans. The Arkansas Derby is scheduled for May 2 now but at this point we're not looking beyond this race on Saturday.
“There's much larger things going on in the world than horse racing.”
Pletcher told the Daily Racing Form on Tuesday that he would be shuttering his New York operation due to COVID-19 and sending his Belmont string to private farms in New York or to Florida. Racing in New York has been suspended. In Florida, races are still continuing without the public.
Gouverneur Morris comes to the Florida Derby off a win in an allowance optional claimer in February at Tampa Bay Downs, and previously a second in the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity in October.
“One of the things we felt coming into the spring (we were making all these plans assuming the Derby was going to be the first Saturday in May) we felt like coming into the Kentucky Derby in his third start wouldn't be the best way to prepare him for his best effort,” said Pletcher of the allowance start. “We decided to go to the Tampa allowance race, which we've had success going through Tampa in the past — Super Saver and Always Dreaming both made starts there as 3-year-olds — and we felt that was the best plan.
“We felt if we got to the Florida Derby, the Blue Grass, or the Wood, if he finished in the top two, that would earn enough points. If he was able to do that he'd get in, and if he didn't, he probably needed a little more time.”
Gouverneur Morris will face Tiz The Law, who represents the Funny Cide exacta in trainer Barclay Tagg and Sackatoga Stable. Tiz The Law achieved redemption in the Grade 3 Holy Bull, winning convincingly after coming third in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes.
“I tell everybody it was a very long eight weeks going from the Kentucky Jockey Club to the Holy Bull,” said Knowlton. “We felt he was a very special horse, not only when he won the Champagne but when he broke his maiden at Saratoga. Unfortunately we hit a race where things didn't go our way at Churchill–the rain would not relent. He got stuck down inside and that wasn't the best of trips for him.”
For Knowlton, it has been an unexpected joy to be back on the Derby trail again with such a strong prospect.
“Never in my life, once Funny Cide retired in 2007, did I expect Sackatoga would have a horse that we could even be thinking about the Derby,” said Knowlton. “We buy one horse, maybe two horses, a year. We don't spend a lot of money and we always buy New York-breds, so we're not in the game to try to get a horse to go to the Kentucky Derby. What we're hoping for is to have a horse that can run in the New York-bred stakes races.”
Of course, that doesn't mean he isn't looking forward to another chance.
Trainer Michael Trombetta will send Independence Hall to the Florida Derby after a second last time out in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis. Trombetta believes the lively early pace, combined with a lost shoe during the Sam F. Davis, may have impacted the colt's finish.
“I don't know how far he's going to be able to take us. There's so much upside to him,” said Trombetta. “He's handled everything real well up to this point. For any Thoroughbred that's had four races at the level he's had to race at and he's only had one defeat, I still believe there's a tremendously huge upside and I look forward to seeing it out.”
All three connections, speaking on an NTRA media conference call Tuesday, acknowledged they are coping as best they can with the need for social distancing and other restrictions due to COVID-19.
“I'm hunkered down here in Hallandale Beach and have been for the last week and a half,” said Knowlton. “My usual routine is to go up to Palm Meadows any time one of our horses is going to breeze. Every day I'd go to Gulfstream for the racing. What I'm going through and the rest of our team is going through is really somewhat trivial given the state of the world right now.”
Knowlton wasn't yet sure where he'll be able to watch the Florida Derby.
Trombetta said he'd be happy if live racing continued in Florida through this weekend.
“Thinking a whole lot past this weekend is probably going to give you a pretty big headache,” Trombetta said. “I can't tell you how many times in the course of the day I turn on the television or check Twitter because [the possibility of a racing shutdown in Florida] is a real worry.”
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