The Xpressbet Florida Derby is always one of the key trials for Churchill Downs; three horses have won both races since 2013. This year, the race features a number of strong contenders and a guaranteed berth in the field for the Derby itself, thanks to the 100 points on offer to the winner. James Willougby looks at the race in his ongoing analysis of the Kentucky Derby trail.
RACE: $1,000,000 G1 Florida Derby
TRACK: Gulfstream Park, Florida
DISTANCE: One mile, one furlong
DESCRIPTION: Regional final fed by G2 Fountain of Youth (March 2) and G3 Holy Bull (February 2)
Top choice: HIDDEN SCROLL
Allowing for the pace – they went fractions of 22.80 – 22.89 – 24.73 – 26.42 and 7.01 (pro-rated 28.04) – the best horse in the G2 Fountain of Youth field was fourth-placed Hidden Scroll. He led after two furlongs, right into the jaws of that pace, while the three that beat him in the end were seven lengths, 11 lengths and seven lengths off it.
So, we know from the laws of physics that Code Of Honor, Bourbon War and Vekoma ran closer to even pace than did Hidden Scroll, and when we look across the data set of all horses who depart from even pace as much as Hidden Scroll and measure their departure from their best time performances, we find that the evidence tallies with the theory – to be beaten only just over four lengths by the winner is enough to project that, had all horses run the first part of the race at the same speed, Hidden Scroll would have run the fastest time for the distance and therefore beaten them.
This is the theory explicit for the casual judgments that are generally made about pace. There are, of course, a manifold of assumptions which must not interfere with the theory too greatly for it to hold when the horses next meet.
That they do meet is the key to this race’s additional interest.
Hidden Scroll entered the Fountain of Youth as the wildly impressive winner of a maiden on the undercard of the Pegasus World Cup on January 26. Bolstering the theory above is the outstanding speed figure he achieved first time up residing several lengths in excess of that which he recorded when subsequently going off too fast – the two performances tie in, which makes the inferences we are drawing about the colt being very smart that much more likely.
But the question often missed is why did a horse go off too fast. This is readily attributed to jockey error because it suits us to think this way; it is like we are hard-wired to blame the rider when we want to make an excuse for a horse, a reflex of horseplayers since the game first began.
In the saddle for Hidden Scroll’s two runs was Joel Rosario. I cannot speak for the reader, but I have lost count of the number of tickets I have cashed over the years because of him. Did he suddenly lose touch with his senses? Did the 34-year-old veteran really think he was sitting on a colt better than his old pals Accelerate, Frosted and Animal Kingdom? I would seriously doubt it.
It is surely more likely that Rosario’s error was simply to allow Hidden Scroll too much autonomy over the situation and, as a greenhorn seeing the track for only the second time, he was too exuberant, too keyed up, too on the muscle.
Hidden Scroll’s trainer, Bill Mott, is using Javier Castellano this time. And, while this is a wash in terms of riding talent compared with the excellent Rosario, Castellano and his mount both have the benefit of learning from the past.
The problem may be that Hidden Scroll has an extra half-furlong to travel – a significant difference in two-turn races on dirt – and has also drawn the rails pitch. This may limit Castellano’s options and make it more problematic to ride a more patient race on him. After all, the most favourable spot from which to stalk the pace is always on the outside shoulder of the leader.
Nevertheless, even with doubts over whether Hidden Scroll’s speed can be regulated more evenly, and others emanating from how well he will take the Fountain of Youth physically with so little foundation, he is still the one to beat. Because this colt’s talent is very much for real. And, if this race were run as a time trial for each horse separately, he would be easily the most likely winner.
Value pick: MAXIMUM SECURITY
So far in this series:
- Limonite (G2 Risen Star) 5th, 17.5-1
- Bourbon War (G2 Fountain of Youth) 2nd, 4.3-1
- HAIKAL (G3 Gotham) WON, 4.4-1
- Outshine (G2 Tampa Bay Derby) 2nd, 6.1-1
- Galilean (G2 Rebel Stakes Div 1) 3rd, 3.6-1
- OMAHA BEACH (G2 Rebel Stakes Div 2) WON, 4.4-1
- Spinoff (G2 Louisiana Derby) 2nd, 4.3-1
About five minutes before this was written, your author finally recovered psychologically from the defeat of the highly promising Spinoff last week. It is not that the winner, By My Standards, was lucky to beat him – he certainly wasn’t and is a highly interesting horses in his own right – it is more that Spinoff himself ran off his face, and it is still inconceivable that anything beat him, let alone an unconsidered maiden winner.
The way this race figures to be bet on, Hidden Scroll, Code Of Honor and Bourbon War will eat up a lot of the market percentage. Any could prevail, but in this section the point is to find the value – whether that is at the front of the market or among the dogs.
MAXIMUM SECURITY is the selection, both for obvious reasons and hopefully not so obvious ones. First, he is unbeaten after three starts and posted a time of 1:21.72 in an allowance race over seven furlongs here last time, scoring by more than 18 lengths. That’s actually comparable with Hidden Scroll’s maiden, and we are likely to get three or four times the price.
Further, Maximum Security carried a six-pound penalty there. This kind of thing is sneered at by many U.S. analysts, but fortunately for those who do believe that Newton’s Laws still hold on the other side of the Atlantic, weight does very much make a difference to speed figures in the U.S. Many of the weight differences are small and their impact is drowned out by larger differences in ability, but six pounds is six pounds, and Maximum Security would have run faster without it.
The step up to nine furlongs, not to mention the rise in class, is obviously problematic to a horse who is used to being the fastest guy in the race, but the hidden factor I alluded to above is that his forward-going style could actually be an advantage here from a value perspective, as Hidden Scroll may be taken back in reaction to last time, while Hidden Scroll and Code Of Honor are closers.
As those of us all-in on Spinoff last week found to our cost, the old Wild West maxim that the new shooter is often the deadliest can really bear fruit in this game. Form achieved in Graded races requires opportunity as well as ability, and all good horses had to start somewhere, as we can observe by following their form back a few steps.
For Spinoff’s backers, funds need to be recovered. Let’s hope to get out of jail this week with a Maximum Security solution in Florida.
Previously in this series
Who might have learned enough to shine in the Risen Star?
Hidden Scroll must show he’s up to it between the ears
Can Instagrand repay some welcome independent thinking?
Is this a Bob Baffert benefit?
Now the better stayers start to come into their own