It’s crunch time for horses making their way to a place in the gate for the 150th Kentucky Derby (G1) on the first Saturday in May. This weekend’s pair of Grade 1s – the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park – will sort out the top colts from those circuits. Next weekend, April 6, the final major Derby stepping-stone stakes will run at three tracks: Keeneland hosts the Blue Grass (G2), Aqueduct the Grade 1 Wood Memorial and in California, the Santa Anita Derby (G1) will have a small field.

The Florida Derby is very interesting since the 2023 Champion two-year-old colt FIERCENESS must bounce back from a soft return to the races when he was third in the Holy Bull Stakes (G3) on Feb. 3. An easy winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) last fall at Santa Anita with a whopping 105 Beyer Speed Figure, Fierceness was bumped hard at the start of the Holy Bull, ridden hard to press the slow pace while three wide all the way before he stalled.

Pletcher has raved about the colt’s five workouts since the Holy Bull flop (he was quoted as saying the colt ‘could have been a little rusty’ off the layoff) but so far the two times Fierceness has not had smooth sailing on or near the early pace in his races, he has not performed well.

To help you sort out the best wagering options for the Florida Derby (race 14, Gulfstream, Saturday, post time 6:42 p.m.) here are some approaches to consider:

Historical trends

The Florida Derby, at 1 1/8 miles and just five weeks before the daddy of all Derbys, is arguably the most influential stepping-stone race. Inaugurated in 1952, 15 winners have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby and 21 winners went on to win at least one of the Triple Crown races.

Todd Pletcher has won seven Florida Derbys, more than any other trainer, and he’s sent out the winner of the race an incredible six times in the last 10 years. John Velazquez, who rides Fierceness, was aboard three of those last six winners and he leads all riders with five Florida Derby wins. Irad Ortiz, who is on Pletcher longshot Bail Us Out in this year’s Florida Derby, rode two of the trainer’s recent Derby winners.

As with many major races for three-year-olds in the spring, the winners are usually the horses who have been in improving form and coming off a good recent effort; at least a top-three finish. In fact, every one of the last 11 winners of the Florida Derby came off a winning effort.

The running style of winners of the Florida Derby has predominantly been speed or stalk but if it appears the pace could set up as fast and contested, don’t be afraid to include a closing type in your wagers. Last year’s winner, Forte, while odds-on, was five lengths off the early pace which included a sharp half-mile split of 46.71.

More than 80 percent of the last 20 winners of the Florida Derby were 5-to-1 or less at post time and horses who had already raced at Gulfstream Park also had the best success.

The field, with comments:

Post / Horse / Trainer / Jockey / Odds

1. Frankie’s Empire / M. Yates / M. Vasquez / 12-1 – Improving
2. Hades / J. Orseno / P. Lopez / 7-2 – Undefeated
3. Bail Us Out / T. Pletcher / I. Ortiz / 15-1 – Lightly raced
4. Grand Mo the First / V. Barboza / E. Jaramillo / 15-1 – Good race 3 weeks ago
5. Real Macho / R. Crichton / J Castellano / 20-1 – fizzled in latest
6. Le Dom Bro / E. Cordero / E. Gonzalez / 15-1 – Improving
7. Catalytic / S. Joseph / J. Leparoux / 20-1 – First try at route distance
8. Seminole Chief / J. Sisterson / J. Rosario / 30-1 – In and outer
9. Conquest Warrior / C. McGaughey / J Ortiz / 3-1 – On a roll
10. Fierceness / T. Pletcher / J. Velazquez / 8-5 – 2023 Champion
11. Iris’s Dream / C. Winebaugh / J. Ruiz / 30-1 – Big grass win

bet 365 Florida Derby wagers:

How you want to approach race favourite, last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner FIERCENESS (#10), will dictate how you want to bet the Florida Derby. His Breeders’ Cup win was sensational and the prediction is that he will be hustled early from his wide post on Saturday to get his preferred spot on or close to the early pace. It is anyone’s guess how this speedy colt will finish, however.

CONQUEST WARRIOR (#9) is the pick from this corner to win the Florida Derby. From just three starts, this $1 million yearling purchase has won consecutive route races at Gulfstream including a five-length win in an allowance race on March 1. Trained by Hall of Famer ‘Shug’ McGaughey, Conquest Warrior (by the same sire, City of Light, as Fierceness) will be getting his first stakes test and off a pair of 84 Beyer Speed Figures will need to step up to win.

HADES (#2) has not lost in three races and his Holy Bull Stakes (G3) win was impressive as he battled on the slow pace and then turned on the jets to win by two lengths, leaving Fierceness in his wake. Jockey Paco Lopez figures to have this gelding close to the pace again and if they have to go quicker in the early stages, at a longer distance he could be vulnerable in the late stages.

My longshot is FRANKIE’S EMPIRE (#1) who has improved with each start since he won a sprint race at Parx in Philadelphia in December. He won the Swale Stakes at seven furlongs and then was third in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) on March 2 to front-runner Dornoch, who set a slow pace. At 12-to-1, this colt offers good value for exactas and trifectas.

$20 Win #9 Conquest Warrior
$2 Exacta 1, 9 / 1, 2, 9, 10 = $12.00

Good luck with your bet365 wagers!