2017 Kentucky Derby: 3 Things Learned During Florida Derby Weekend

April 4, 2017

2017 Kentucky Derby is just 5 weeks away. There are three big things we learned during the Florida Derby weekend on the road to the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.


The year was 2000 and Todd Pletcher was sending his first horse to the Kentucky Derby. As it turned out, Pletcher actually had three starters that year, a trend that we would get accustomed to for the eventual six time Eclipse Award winner and future Hall of Famer.  


Now, after sixteen Kentucky Derbies, 45 starters and one win, it appears that 2017 will be the year that Todd Pletcher passes the trainer he once apprenticed under. Since D. Wayne Lukas did not have an entry for the 2016 Kentucky Derby his total number of starters over the course of his illustrious career stands at 48.


1) A Pletcher Packed Field 


After this weekend, it could be another Pletcher packed post parade in the 2017 Kentucky Derby. Included will most certainly be Always Dreaming, the dominant winner of the 2017 Florida Derby at Gulfstream on Saturday. The performance was the third of its kind for Pletcher this season. Before the son of Bodemeister became the latest, it was Tapwrit in the Tampa Bay Derby and Malagacy in the Rebel.


Combined they will match Todd Pletcher with D. Wayne Lukas at 48 starters. Yet, when you begin to consider One Liner, the Southwest Stakes winner; Patch, the runner-up finisher in the Louisiana Derby; Master Plan, the third place finisher in the UAE Derby; and Battalion Runner, who has now been confirmed for the Wood Memorial, Pletcher could be holding onto seven Kentucky Derby qualifiers.  


So, it will be interesting to see how many end up in the starting gate for Pletcher this year. If anyone could benefit from having more horses racing in this year’s Kentucky Derby it would definitely be him. Until 2010, we always talked about Pletcher’s record in this race. Since Super Saver ended his drought however, we still keep analyzing his numbers because they’re so large. It would be ironic if 2017 becomes the year that Pletcher finally passes D. Wayne Lukas with the largest amount of Kentucky Derby starters in history, but also brings him his second Kentucky Derby win.


There has been a lot of great trainers that never scored two. Yet, with the talent that Pletcher could be bringing to Churchill Downs this time around, his chances for becoming a repeat winner look pretty good so far.


2) Louisiana to Louisville, Kentucky


The Louisiana Derby wasn’t always raced at the end of March. Often times in recent history this stakes race for three-year-olds was raced a couple of weeks earlier, making it the second to last stop on the road to the Kentucky Derby. So, when this stakes produced Black Gold in 1924, Grindstone in 1996, and Funny Cide in 2003, the Louisiana Derby was not that last place any of these three, the only horses to ever win the Kentucky Derby following the Louisiana Derby, raced before entering the Kentucky Derby.


Of these three champions, Black Gold is only the one who left the Fair Grounds and Louisiana and shipped straight to Louisville. Those were the days a Kentucky Derby starter would often enter the Derby Trial just a few days earlier and Black Gold became one of the most famous, after he won them both in 1924. Grindstone went on to finish second in the Arkansas Derby, after winning the Louisiana Derby. While Funny Cide would run second in the Wood Memorial after leaving the Fair Grounds.


In 2017, Girvin will be heading straight to Churchill Downs for a date with destiny. Not only does he have the chance to become one of only four Louisiana Derby starters to wear the roses, but he can now become the first to do it without another start between the two races.


He’s not the first horse that has had this opportunity. In fact, Girvin is not the first Risen Star and Louisiana Derby winner to step into the Kentucky Derby field as major contender either. Just last year, Gun Runner was a respectable foe that would eventually finish third before going on to become the most successful starter in that race since the conclusion of the 2016 Triple Crown.


Before that, International Star was a similar contender that emerged from Louisiana after pulling off an improbable hat trick that included the Lecomte Stakes prior to the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby. Unfortunately, International Star was scratched from the 2015 Kentucky Derby, due to injury.


Preceding that in 2013, Revolutionary won the Louisiana Derby in his first ever race at the Fair Grounds. However, just like Gun Runner and International Star, the WinStar owned colt, trained by Todd Pletcher, also had at least two graded stakes wins going into the Kentucky Derby. His first win in the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct, and what he gained in Louisiana, made this colt a challenger in 2013. It wasn’t enough to get him to the winner's circle but a third place finish was very good behind the runner-up, Golden Soul, a horse he beat in the Louisiana Derby, and the winner of the 2013 Kentucky Derby, Orb.


So, I am comfortable with comparing Girvin to these horses and three near misses. For Revolutionary and Gun Runner, though they dared gamely, they just didn’t have enough to get the job done that day. Girvin could repeat those efforts and finish in the money but not on top, yet I’m also going to give him a good shot at winning the Kentucky Derby. Girvin has proved to me that he is mature and that he is physically fit to handle the field and the distance of the Kentucky Derby. Brian Hernandez Jr., will have to make a tough call if McCraken returns to form in the Blue Grass Stakes but if he stays in the saddle with Girvin, then I also like this team and their chances together.


3) Like Father, Like Son


Despite the challenges that exist for a horse that wants to try and win the Kentucky Derby with a deep close from far back and well off the pace, I truly thought Dialed In had a really good chance in the 2011 Kentucky Derby. Yet, sitting as far back 19th early and 15th through the one mile marker, left Dialed In with very little chances. Too often this is the outcome for a horse in the Kentucky Derby that wants to make up too much ground, from too far back and though too much traffic still in front of him. By the time they are clear to make their final push they simply run out of time.


I applaud these efforts and I also understand that it might be difficult to pull away from a strategy or style of racing that is working. Looking back on the 2011 Florida Derby, Dialed In did what he liked to do when breaking from the outside; break slow, fall into last place, dive down to rail, and then mount an impressive come from behind win.


Now when you compare that approach with his son’s, Gunnevera, on Saturday, I didn’t notice a big difference. Gunnevera also started on the outside and was immediately working with a strategy of last to first when he fell back and shifted towards the rail. The opening fractions out front through six furlongs were similar as well.


2011: 23.30, 46.35, 1:10.63

2017: 23.28, 47.08, 1:10.75


But, the result was much different. In 2011, there were eight horses in the field. This year ten entered the starting gate. The biggest difference is how Dialed In finished. Shackleford was kind of like Always Dreaming in that both of these horses were talented and were going to make anyone who dared to catch them work extremely hard. What made Dialed In’s score so exciting is that he did reel in Shackleford whereas Gunnevera had no shot.


So, if they were different in the end, then where does my analogy “Like Father, Like Son”, come from? The answer is that Gunnevera also will not win the Kentucky Derby if he races like he did in the Florida Derby or like his Dad did in the Kentucky Derby.



It takes a super talented three-year-old to even finish runner-up or in the top three in the Kentucky Derby as a deep closer. I won’t discount that chance for Gunnevera if he can improve from his performance in the Florida Derby, but for him to win in the Kentucky Derby, he will need to be racing further towards the front, or at least somewhere near the middle of the pack versus a last to first approach. If not, his Derby hopes will be dashed before he even reaches the one mile marker.