“That was a pretty awesome performance.”- trainer Todd Pletcher, who has won seven of the last 11 Florida Derbys

Repole Stable’s FIERCENESS dramatically recaptured his championship form Saturday at Gulfstream Park, where the son of City of Light – Nonna Bella (Stay Thirsty) overpowered his opposition by a record 13 ½ lengths in the $1 million Curlin Florida Derby (G1) presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa.

“That was a pretty awesome performance. That’s what we see in the mornings when we breeze him, a special talent,” Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher said. “That’s why it was so perplexing his two races that he didn’t run brilliantly. He’s three times brilliant and two times has had off days.”

Fierceness provided Pletcher with his record-extending eighth Curlin Florida Derby victory while posting the largest winning margin in the 73-year history of the tradition-rich 1 1/8-mile stakes for three-year-olds, eclipsing Empire Maker’s old record of 9 ¾ lengths set in 2003.

The juvenile champion of 2023 joined Pletcher’s previous Curlin Florida Derby winners, Forte (2023), Known Agenda (2021), Audible (2018), Always Dreaming (2017), Materiality (2015), Constitution (2014), and Quality Road (2009).

Fierceness, who finished a disappointing third in the Feb. 2 Holy Bull (G2) in his three-year-old debut after clinching the Eclipse Award with a 6 ¼-length victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at Santa Anita, earned 100 qualifying points for the May 4 Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs, where he will surely vie for favouritism in the first leg of the Triple Crown.

“From a talent perspective, he has it all,” Pletcher said. “Like everyone else in the Derby, you’ve got to hope you draw a good post, you get a good trip, and you like Churchill Downs – all those things.”

Despite his subpar showing in the Holy Bull, Fierceness was sent to post as the even-money favourite in a field reduced to nine horses upon the early morning withdrawals of his stablemate Bail Us Out and Seminole Chief. The Repole Stable homebred put on a show for his backers and everyone else with his dazzling effort, in which he took control on the first turn and was never threatened thereafter. Fierceness set fractions of 24.06 and 47.50 seconds for the first half-mile with Grand Mo the First and Catalytic in pursuit before drawing away while geared down by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez.

“It was pretty easy. This is what I expected last time out of him. He had been working lights out. He broke well today, and I just let him have it. I let them come and get him, and he dominated the whole race. When he got to the backstretch and switched to the turn, he picked it up and so I let him do it. He was comfortable,” Velazquez said. “Then at the quarter pole, I gave him a little smooch and he picked it up right away. It was pretty easy. This is why we’re here. This is what we work for, for opportunities like this. It’s exciting.”

Fierceness ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.22. He is a second generation Mike Repole-bred. Repole purchased the colt’s second dam, Nonna Mia, in 2008 for $200,000 at the Fasig-Tipton August yearling sale. Stakes-placed three times in seven races, the daughter of Empire Maker has produced four foals to race including Grade 1 winner Outwork, winner of the Wood Memorial and successful sire. Nonna Mia is also the dam of Nonna Bella, a winner twice in five races for Repole and Fierceness is her third foal and first to race. Nonna Bella is by Stay Thirsty, who raced for Repole and won the Cigar Mile (G1).

Fierceness has bounced back from a subpar showing before. After winning his debut at Saratoga last August, he finished seventh over a sloppy Aqueduct track in the Oct. 7 Champagne (G1). The Pletcher trainee, of course, redeemed himself with his dominating Breeders’ Cup Juvenile win.

Catalytic, who was making his stakes debut in only his third career start, held on to finish second under Julien Leparoux, 2 ½ lengths ahead of Grand Mo the First, who nosed out 5-2 second choice Conquest Warrior for third.

Tami Bobo, Julie Davies and George Isaac’s Catalytic (Catalina Cruiser)  won his debut by 5 ½ lengths at Gulfstream last October and came back five months later to finish second in a March 8 optional claiming allowance at Tampa Bay Downs.

“He’s a good horse. It wasn’t the ideal circumstance, but he was brave today. I had a lot of respect for some of the horses in the race and he ran a really good second,” trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. said after Catalytic earned 50 Kentucky Derby qualifying points. “Nothing was going to beat the winner. We should improve a lot from this. Hopefully he comes out well, and we’ve got five weeks to keep dreaming.”

Trainer Victor Barboza Jr. is hopeful that Grand Mo the First (Uncle Mo), who was beaten by only a neck while finishing third in the March 9 Tampa Bay Derby (G3), will make the Kentucky Derby field.

“I’m very happy with the race. Today he earned 25 points. He has 40 points,” Barboza said. “He has a good chance to make the Kentucky Derby.”

(See full points list on the Arkansas Derby news post from Canadian Thoroughbred here.)