Kentucky Derby fever begins with Florida Derby
Perhaps trainer Mark Casse summed it up perfectly this week during a teleconference when discussing the final Kentucky Derby prep races. “Look, hey everybody is … it’s called Derby fever, and it’s definitely something that’s contagious, and you get it,” said Casse, who is sending out Soup and Sandwich, a 20-1 longshot on the morning line, in Saturday’s $750,000 Grade I Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. Soup and Sandwich is 2 for 2 in his career, but the two victories came in his maiden debut at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 28 and an allowance/optional claimer at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 24. Is the son of Into Mischief ready to take on the likes of Greatest Honour, winner of the Grade III Holy Bull Stakes and Grade II Fountain of Youth, and the Bob Baffert-trained Spielberg, runner-up to 2-year-old champion Essential Quality in the Grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park? “I feel like now is the time to give him a try,” Casse said. “If it doesn’t work out, we’ll look elsewhere.” The Florida Derby, which along with the Santa Anita Derby and Arkansas Derby has produced the most winners on the first Saturday in May over the past 20 years, drew a large field of 11. Greatest Honour, who took four tries to break his maiden, drew the cozy No. 7 post and will have Jose Ortiz in the saddle for the 1-1/8-mile race. His trainer, Shug McGaughey, won the 2013 Kentucky Derby with Orb. A son of Tapit, Greatest Honour – the 6-5 morning-line favorite with Spielberg as the 4-1 second choice –seems to have enjoyed the added distance in his past four starts. “With his pedigree, he was begging to (run farther),” McGaughey said. “In hindsight, I think the two (7-furlong races to begin his career), his first two races where he could finish, I think he learned a lot. Then first time around two turns, he ran really good. “He’s still a little green going around two turns, like at Aqueduct where he just got beat, (but) I think that helped him get to where he is today.” Where he is today is high on the list of top Kentucky Derby contenders. It says here that it’s a short list, and the Florida Derby, next weekend’s Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes, and the Arkansas Derby on April 10 will help separate the true contenders from the pretenders. Pay particular attention to the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby and Arkansas Derby. That trio has been particularly potent producing Kentucky Derby winners. Consider this: The Wood Memorial winner has not won the Kentucky Derby since Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000. Of course, the race might just be jinxed. For instance, I Want Revenge won the 2009 Wood and was the Derby favorite before he injured his right front ankle and had to be withdrawn the day before the race. Then there’s the Blue Grass, whose winner hasn’t won the Derby since Strike the Gold in 1991. But if you go back to the ’70s, well, it’s a whole different story. Spectacular Bid (1979), Riva Ridge (’72) and Dust Commander (’70) all scored the Blue Grass/Derby double. Of course, Essential Quality could put the Blue Grass back on the map this year. That’s scheduled to be the Tapit colt’s final Derby prep. Recent history is also against Hot Rod Charlie, the winner of last weekend’s Louisiana Derby. The last winner of the Louisiana Derby to win the Kentucky Derby? Grindstone in 1996, giving D. Wayne Lukas his third of four Kentucky Derby winners. Now, on the other hand, the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby and Arkansas Derby winners have made Churchill Downs their own personal playpen the past 20 years. The Florida Derby is king of the hill: Always Dreaming (2017), Nyquist (2016), Orb (2013), Big Brown (2008), Barbaro (2006) and Monarchos (2001). Santa Anita Derby: Justify (2018), California Chrome (2014) and I’ll Have Another (2012). But also consider that Authentic (second in 2020) and Giacomo (fourth in 2005) came out of the Santa Anita Derby and won in Kentucky. Arkansas Derby: American Pharoah (2015) and Smarty Jones (2004). Country House, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2019, albeit via disqualification, finished third in the Arkansas Derby and 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver finished second. The Santa Anita Derby lost the talented Life Is Good last weekend because of an injury, but it’s still shaping up as a huge Derby prep, with Medina Spirit, runner up to Life Is Good in the Grade II San Felipe on March 6, the likely post-time favorite. The promising Dream Shake, third in the San Felipe, Roman Centurian, The Great One, Rock Your World and Rombauer are other probables for the Santa Anita Derby on April 3.