To pay attention to the result of the Florida Derby, or not to pay attention to the result of the Florida Derby, that is the question. I mean no disrespect to the winner, Take Charge Indy, or the runner-up, Reveron, for that matter, as both horses ran big races. It was a coming out party for Take Charge Indy, who has been long suspected to be on the verge of something big, and cashed in on those beliefs with a game front-running win in one of the most important Derby preps of the season. Reveron, meanwhile, continued to do what he does, in running another solid race. It is however, the 3rd and 4th place finishers in the Florida Derby that still most interest me. Union Rags was heavily favored in the Florida Derby, and deservedly so. Sure, you can say that he was bet lower then he should have been, but whether he was bet down to 2-5 or was let go at a more palatable even money, he was clearly the best horse coming into the race. And then you have the heavy second choice, El Padrino. A horse that was coming off a determined win in the Risen Star Stakes, and before that a powerful allowance score over none other than Take Charge Indy. Neither horse would run to their odds though, and this disappointment would come in their last race before the Kentucky Derby. Surely this would spell pure disaster for any hopes at a win under the twin spires of Churchill Downs, because we all know that Kentucky Derby winners come in to the race off glorious winning performances propelling them to Louisville. Not even close.
In fact, guess what *Alysheba, Unbridled, Lil E. Tee, Sea Hero, Go for Gin, Thunder Gulch, Silver Charm, Monarchos, Funny Cide, Giacomo, Street Sense, Mine that Bird, and Super Saver all have in common? If you said they are all Kentucky Derby winners, you are correct. They are also horses who came into the Kentucky Derby off a loss, and these are only the examples of the last quarter-century. A quick count shows that this group accounts for 13 of the last 25 Kentucky Derbies, or better than 50%. This shocking revelation is not exclusive to thoroughbred horse racing either. Last night while watching the national championship game between Kentucky and Kansas, I could not help but relate the respective teams to race horses. I wonder how many basketball fans gave up on each squad before the NCAA tournament. After all, both the Wildcats and the Jayhawks had been beaten in their conference tournaments, sending them to March Madness off a loss.
So while many will look at the one-length loss of Union Rags, and the 2 ¾ length defeat of El Padrino in the Florida Derby as proof that they are not as good as people thought, and sure-tell signs that they won’t get it done on the First Saturday in May, I would caution you that history has taught us a different lesson. Whether or not you believe that Union Rags would have won if he was not hemmed in for much of the race, or that both horses were the victim of a moderate pace on a speed favoring, and inside biased racetrack, it is entirely possible that neither Union Rags nor El Padrino will prove to be the best of their generation, but to assume that, after their final prep for the Derby, is hasty. There is a reason the Florida Derby is called a prep.
Much like it was the job of coaches John Calipari and Bill Self to have their teams at their very best for the NCAA tournament and the Final Four, rather than the conference tournament games lost by Kentucky and Kansas, it is the job of trainers Michael Matz and Todd Pletcher to have their horses at their best on May 5 (and hopefully May 19 and June 9), rather than this past Saturday at Gulfstream Park.
I liked both Union Rags and El Padrino for the Kentucky Derby before the Florida Derby, and I still do. I liked Union Rags because I believe he is as good or better than anyone in this crop, and I still do. I liked El Padrino because I believe he is a horse that will really appreciate the ten furlongs at Churchill Downs, and I still do. If you liked them like I did, now is no time to give up on either one.
*- Alysheba did finish first in a three-horse photo in the Blue Grass, but was disqualified for interference.