A stellar cast has been assembled for the Curlin Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on Saturday night – a race that is again likely to prove a major pointer to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby later in the year.
Although the Kentucky Derby has been postponed to the first Saturday in September rather than May this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, few races have quite the bearing on the ‘Run for the Roses’ than the Gulfstream feature.
Six horses have won both races since the turn of the century – and that would have been seven had Maximum Security not been controversially disqualified from first place at Churchill Downs last year.
Much attention in the latest renewal will surround Tiz The Law – who represents the same connections as Funny Cide, winner of the Derby and Preakness Stakes in 2003.
Trained by Barclay Tagg, the once-beaten Constitution colt impressed on his return in the Holy Bull Stakes at this track last month, overcoming a less than ideal trip to beat Ete Indien, recording a big speed figure in the process. Manny Franco again takes the ride.
Ete Indien has boosted the form in style since and reopposes, while Independence Hall bids to restore his lofty reputation having been beaten for the first time on his latest start.
Also in opposition to Tiz The Law is Gouverneur Morris, like the favourite a son of Constitution and just a whisker off the track record on his latest start at Tampa Bay Downs.
The exciting grey is one of two runners for Todd Pletcher and will be ridden by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez.
His only reverse came at the hands of Godolphin’s hugely promising Maxfield in a Grade One at Keeneland in October.
He was bought by Barry Irwin, founder and chief executive of Team Valor, who own the colt along with WinStar Farm LLC, exactly a year ago.
“I bought him as a two-year-old at the sales just about a year ago. I had not bought a male two-year-old at the breeze-up sales for over 12 years,” said Irwin, whose Team Valor colours were carried to victory in Kentucky by Animal Kingdom in 2011.
“I liked the way he moved. We made one bid at $600,000 and got him. He did run a spectacular race on debut last year and in his only other start he ran second in a Grade One.
“He had an horrendous trip, he was extremely wide and ran so much further than all the other horses. The race kind of rattled him. It took us a month to get him back to where he was before the race.
“He’s been a little backward and we brought him out for one race this year in a small race at a small track. It turned out to be a fairly hot race as everybody had the same idea we did.
“He was still learning in the race. He managed to win and get close to the track record.”
Irwin is as keen as anyone to see if Gouverneur Morris can develop into a serious contender for the Kentucky Derby.
“Since then he has worked well. I personally, even though I picked him and I manage him, I don’t have a handle on how much quality he’s got or how good he really is,” he said.
“Naturally we’re hopeful, but I have not seen enough yet to convince me that he’s a for real Derby horse. I’ve had a few so I know what they’re like.
“I’m as interested and anxious to see what he is going to do tomorrow as anybody else.
“It’s a pretty competitive field. There’s a half a dozen horses that could come out of it and win and nobody would be surprised.
“I have more faith in my trainer (Pletcher) and my jockey (Velazquez). This trainer is fantastic at this track. He knows what he needs to do and he has told me that two of this horse’s last three works were terrific. The jockey said he keeps improving each time.
“Those guys are happy. I am still sceptical.”
Pletcher will also saddle Candy Tycoon.
Also on the high-class card is the Fasig-Tipton Gulfstream Park Oaks, which sees a rematch between leading Kentucky Oaks contenders Tonalist’s Shape and Spice Is Nice.