You don't have to pass through Florida to get to Kentucky.
But history — at least as it involves the best path to the Kentucky Derby (G1) — suggests it pays to experience a little sunshine and salt air before preening in the shadows of the Twin Spires come May.
Once again, when Gulfstream Park opens its doors on Friday for its 2019-'20 Championship Meet, the greatest focus will be on the contingent of emerging 3-year-olds, with their major target the $1 million Florida Derby (G1) on March 28.
So far, the Triple Crown 'Class of 2020' is already showing signs of superior strength. Many of the nation's leading juveniles belong to trainers and owners who will bring their horses to South Florida this winter.
- Tiz The Law, winner of the Champagne Stakes (G1) for trainer Barclay Tagg and owner Sackatoga Stable, who teamed to win the Kentucky Derby of 2003 with Funny Cide;
- Dennis' Moment, winner of the Iroquois Stakes (G3) and hard-luck loser in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) for trainer Dale Romans;
- Maxfield, winner of the Breeders' Futurity (G1) for trainer Brendan Walsh;
- Gouverneur Morris, runner-up in the Breeders' Futurity for trainer Todd Pletcher.
Others to watch include Independence Hall, who posted an eye-popping victory in the Nashua Stakes (G3) for trainer Michael Trombetta; Three Technique an emerging colt who is owned by two-time Super Bowl-winning coach and Hall of Famer Bill Parcells; and Structor, winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) for trainer Chad Brown.
Each of those were among the 22 individual horses receiving odds in Pool 1 of the 2020 Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Not to be overlooked is Chance It, who was the 2-year-old star of Gulfstream's summer meet for trainer Saffie Joseph Jr.
“I think that, overall, it appears to be a very good crop,” said Pletcher, who owns a record five wins in the Florida Derby.
Just how good will be determined over the coming months, when Gulfstream's stakes schedule helps to establish a pecking order for the top 3-year-olds on the East Coast.
The key races for 3-year-olds include the $100,000 Mucho Macho Man Stakes on Jan. 4, the $350,000 Holy Bull (G2) and $150,000 Swale (G3) on Feb. 1, $100,000 Hutcheson (G3) on Feb. 22, and $400,000 Fountain of Youth (G2) on Feb. 29.
The Florida Derby, which has produced 59 winners of Triple Crown events over its 68-year history, concludes the stakes program for 3-year-olds and, for many, is the final stop before the Kentucky Derby.
“Honestly, it always looks like there's an emerging good group of horses every year, and then they spread out a little bit,” Trombetta said. “It's just such a long way to go.”
Barry Irwin, owner of Team Valor International, which won the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom and hopes to do the same with Gouverneur Morris, said it becomes a game of strategy as trainers and owners try to maneuver a path to Kentucky.
“The winter meet (at Gulfstream) is going to be good one because a lot of these horses that aren't really that exposed are going to make for some interesting races,” Irwin said. “I think the scrambling for who's going to be run where is going to be a poker game.”
If history is a lesson, new stars will emerge during the meet – and they won't be found in just the stakes races. Last year, Maximum Security won his debut in an inconspicuous maiden claiming race in late December at Gulfstream before going on to win the Florida Derby.
Constitution, one of Pletcher's Florida Derby winners, broke his maiden in January of his 3-year-old season in 2014. Interestingly, Constitution sired three of this year's leading 2-year-old standouts: Tiz the Law, Independence Hall and Gouverneur Morris.
“You've got to bring them along one step at a time,” said Trombetta, who intends to race Independence Hall in the Jan. 1 Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct before sending him to Florida. “Eventually, everybody's target is to get up to two-turn races and a mile and a quarter.”
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