Handicapping This Weekend’s Florida & Louisiana Derbies

What a Saturday coming up for horseplayers! The $1 Million Florida Derby & $1 Million Louisiana Derby are both on tap Saturday April 1st. The two new Richmond area OTBs will be filled with race fans so come on out and join in the fun. Next Saturday April 8th, the OTB at Ponies & Pints will play horse to a handicapping seminar featuring Derby Bill Watson, Peter Kreutzer, Frank Vespe and Nick Hahn. They’ll preview the 3 major prep races that day — the Wood Memorial, Bluegrass Stakes and Santa Anita Derby. Join them from 11 AM -12 Noon. It is sponsored by The Racing Biz. In the meanwhile, here’s a preview of key races on April 1st. 

The Southern routes to Louisville come to a climax April Fools’ Day, when Gulfstream Park and Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots each highlight their final stakes-studded April 1 programs with 170-point qualifying races (100-40-20-10) to the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) and the Kentucky Derby Presented By Yum! Brands (G1).

The $1 million Xpressbet Florida Derby (G1) anchors a 14-race program and is the final leg of a late, all-stakes pick four ($750,000 guaranteed pool) that begins with the $250,000 Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2).

Dave Liftin handicaps this weekend's major Derby preps.
Dave Liftin handicaps this weekend’s major Derby preps.

As far as April Fools’ is concerned, the Florida Derby also concludes the Rainbow 6, which has not been hit for a while and had a carryover exceeding $1.5 million heading into Friday. While they’re guaranteeing $2 million to a single winning ticket Saturday, be aware Sunday is the final day of the winter meet, when the entire Rainbow 6 pool must be distributed regardless of whether anyone has all six winners. Bettors nationwide will be rooting feverishly for an overflowing pot of gold after the Florida Derby results are in.

On a 15-race card at Fair Grounds, the $400,000 Twinspires.com Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) and the $1 million Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) are the concluding legs of an all-graded stakes pick four ($150,000 guaranteed) that begins with the $400,000 New Orleans Handicap (G2) and the $300,000 Muniz Memorial Handicap (G2T).

Gulfstream Park Oaks (GP, race 11, 4:57 EDT): Tequilita (#2) has won all three of her starts since going on Lasix, finishing her juvenile campaign with a victory in the Smart Halo going six furlongs at Laurel Park, and returning earlier at Gulfstream’s winter meet to take the Forward Gal Stakes (G2) with a grinding rally despite drifting out. The daughter of Union Rags   is the only stakes winner in the Oaks field, but is listed as only the third choice at 5-1 on the morning line, because as the numbers suggest, she has not busted any stopwatches up to now and must stretch out from seven furlongs to 1 1/16 miles.

Salty (#6) and Nonna Bella (#7) are the first two choices at 9-5 and 2-1, and they were that close in their respective 6 1/2-furlong debuts on Feb. 4—about 90 minutes before Tequilita won the Forward Gal. Nonna Bella led all the way at even money, staving off the 24-1 Salty.

Gary Barber acquired an interest in Salty after that race, and he must be tickled with subsequent developments. Salty beat maidens decisively at seven furlongs on March 5 for new trainer Mark Casse; five days later, Nonna Bella validated their initial confrontation by garnering her preliminary allowance condition (also at seven panels) for owner-breeder Mike Repole and trainer Todd Pletcher.

The two favorites are relatively light on seasoning and go two turns for the first time.

Jordan’s Henny (#5) and Summer Luck (#3) were separated by a neck when second and third in the one-mile Davona Dale (G2) out of the Gulfstream chute.

A – 6, 7
B – 2, 3, 5

Florida Derby (GP, race 14, 6:40 EDT): Gunnevara (#11) owns all three of the graded stakes victories in this edition, and is deservedly favored at 9-5 on the morning line. His four starts paired with Javier Castellano have resulted in wins in the Saratoga Special (G2), Delta Downs Jackpot (G3) and the XpressBet Fountain Of Youth (G2), along with a troubled runner-up finish in the Holy Bull (G2).

As a deep closer, Gunnevara should find his far outside draw less of an obstacle than it would be for a speed horse. Be that as it may, a) it’s still a low-percentage post, and b) experience warns there is always the possibility of a track tilted toward horses with inside speed on big-race days.

Todd Pletcher entered the second and third choices on the line, Battalion Runner (#9) and Always Dreaming (#4), who both exit preliminary allowance wins over the track. However, unless something befalls Always Dreaming that prevents him from running, it was expected as of Friday morning that Battalion Runner will be withheld.

Always Dreaming had what amounted to a public workout in the opener March 4, when able to coast along through extremely slow fractions at odds of 1-10; among those in his wake that day were Charlie the Greek (#3) and Unbridled Holiday (#7), who appear ambitiously spotted, to put it charitably.

If the favorite is to be upended, it seems as though the likeliest to do so are State of Honor (#1) and Three Rules (#10).

State of Honor has blown four leads since a maiden win at seven furlongs, but the blinkers come off the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) runner-up after a four-wide run around the first turn, and he may work out a favorable pocket trip from the fence.

Although unable to contain Gunnevara in the Fountain Of Youth, Three Rules held stubbornly to just miss second after cutting a solid pace. He may be pushing the envelope at 1 1/8 miles, but has the third-off-a-layoff angle working, and could get the lead if the plan is to rate the blinker-less State of Honor.

A – 11
B – 1, 10

Fair Grounds Oaks (FG, race 10, 4:41 CDT): Farrell (#6) has swept the Golden Rod (G2), the Silverbulletday and the Rachel Alexandra (G2) stakes in her last three starts.

Six of Farrell’s seven opponents are eligible for preliminary allowance conditions, and the exception is still a maiden after eight starts.

Seeing as Summer Luck (#7) is expected to stay in Florida for the Gulfstream Oaks, the most viable alternative seems to be Corporate Queen (#4), who was acquired by Gary Barber after winning first time out at Laurel Park in mid-January, and now has celebrity chef Bobby Flay on board as well, after running a fast-closing second to Gulfstream Oaks contender Nonna Bella.

A – 6
B – 4

Louisiana Derby (FG, race 11, 5:21 CDT): Girvin (#8) overcame some scheduling issues to win the Risen Star Stakes (G2) in just his third career start, with pacesetter Local Hero (#3) fading to third and the late-running Guest Suite (#6) failing to fire and finishing an even fourth.

At this point, it’s unclear whether any among that trio are truly top-notch prospects, which makes Todd Pletcher’s Florida invader Patch (#1) somewhat intriguing.

Patch is a third-time starter making his stakes debut, but that was also the case with Pletcher’s pair of One Liner and Malagacy, who shipped to Oaklawn to annex the Southwest (G3) and Rebel (G2) stakes.

Patch has no experience at 1 1/8 miles, but neither does anyone else in the field, and he made a favorable impression winning a 14-horse maiden race out of the chute at Gulfstream. With Belmont Stakes (G1) winners Union Rags and A.P. Indy on either side of his pedigree, he may be set to improve with the added distance, and need only do so minimally to have a big say in the outcome.

A – 1, 8
B – 3, 6