Head to Head: Handicapping the Florida Derby

Head to Head: Handicapping the Florida Derby
Photo: Gulfstream Park

The $1 million Grade 1 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park concludes the state’s preps for Kentucky Derby 2023. The top five finishers in the 1 1/8-mile event will receive 100-40-20-10 Derby qualifying points.

The Florida Derby has been quite productive in terms of the Kentucky Derby. In 2019, Maximum Security won both the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby but was disqualified at Churchill Downs for interference. Always Dreaming in 2017, Nyquist in 2016, Orb in 2013, Big Brown in 2008, Barbaro in 2006 and Monarchos in 2001 have completed the Florida Derby/Kentucky Derby double since 2000. Many others have either won or placed in Florida and then placed in Kentucky.

On paper, the 2022 2-year-old champ and this year’s Fountain of Youth (G2) winner Forte outclasses a full field of 11 rivals. His opponents include Fountain of Youth third- and fourth-place finishers Cyber Mischief and Mage, plus Holy Bull (G3) third-place runner West Coast Cowboy.

Conditions should be perfect Saturday, so expect a fast track. Post time is at 6:40 p.m. EDT, and the race is the 14th and last of the day.

Laurie Ross of Pedigree Power and Ashley Tamulonis of Coast To Coast shuffle through the past performances, review the pedigrees, race, and works videos, to determine their top four finishers.



1. Jungfrau (20-1)

Jungfrau had a rough go of it in the Withers (G3). He was bumped at the break and then lost momentum and became rank when running up the heels of rivals. He lost touch with the field after that and was beaten by 49 lengths. The son of Arrogate has never crossed the wire first but was placed first via DQ two starts back after initially losing by a nose. It’s difficult to say how well he would have run with a cleaner trip, but his Brisnet Speed Ratings have been mediocre. Pass.

Jungfrau earned his lone victory via DQ in December; only one rival from the race has graduated since. In his first start of the year in the 1 1/8-mile Withers, Jungfrau steadied at the start and again around the first turn. Arrogate’s son was rank while racing at the back of the pack. The Bill Mott trainee couldn’t make up ground and finished a depressing 49 lengths out of it. 

In his final pre-race breeze at Payson Park in company with Cyber Ninja, Jungfrau set a solid pace while under a strong hold early. Given his head in the stretch, the large gray colt wasn’t moving as easily as his lighter companion and was passed briefly before the wire, and the rider shook Jungfrau’s reins to keep him going around the turn. Paco Lopez must hustle Jungfrau out of the gate to get position. I don’t think this colt has the early speed of others, and his speed ratings need improvement. Pass.


2. West Coast Cowboy (20-1)

West Coast Cowboy helped light up the tote board in the Holy Bull (G3) when finishing third at 58-1 odds. That race turned out to be a poor indication of future races as only Rocket Can performed similarly in his next outing. The West Coast colt does like Gulfstream, but he’s catching a tougher field in Gulfstream’s final round of Kentucky Derby preps. Pass.

West Coast Cowboy skimmed the rail in the Holy Bull but didn’t have the momentum of Rocket Can and Shadow Dragon. Still, he finished a decent third, and the Saffie Joseph Jr. trainee’s speed ratings are improving. By Travers (G1) hero West Coast out of a stakes-winning daughter of nine-furlong specialist Tenpins, West Coast Cowboy should handle the Florida Derby distance. On that basis, I like him, but in their final pre-race breeze, West Coast Cowboy was outworked by Nautical Star. The Chestnut colt was lathered like a shampoo commercial and was bearing out in the stretch. Another detractor is that Edgar Zayas sticks with Mr. Ripple and Sonny Leon takes the mount. Leon is winning at 8 percent this meet, with one win in 12 starters. If West Coast Cowboy manages a similar trip as the Holy Bull, perhaps he can hit the lower exotics, but I’ll pass.


3. Shaq Diesel (30-1)

A son of Khozan, Shaq Diesel hit the superfecta in two straight stakes sprints at Tampa Bay, but when he faced legitimate Kentucky Derby contenders last out in the Risen Star (G2), he failed to impress. Sent off at 185-1, he ran as expected, finishing 10th, beaten 16 lengths, though I have certainly seen worse finishes for extreme long shots like this. The blinkers come off, an angle that gets trainer Renaldo Richards the win 11 percent of the time (32 percent in the money). Two of this colt’s three lifetime wins have been over this track, but talent-wise, he's in over his head. Pass.


Shaq Diesel was outclassed by 16 lengths in the Risen Star. He’s an optional claiming-level type and hasn’t indicated in previous stakes that he can handle this field. Pass.


4. Mage (10-1)

Mage ran a very respectable fourth in the Fountain of Youth (G2) off just one start, a sparkling maiden victory over seven furlongs. The only two in this field to finish ahead of him were Forte and Cyclone Mischief. He earned a 95 speed rating in the Fountain of Youth, only slightly lower than the 101 he earned upon debut. Of all the favorites, he drew the best post. Luis Saez jumps aboard for the first time for trainer Gustavo Delgado. Contender.


Mage pressed the pace three to four wide the entire way in the Fountain of Youth and was in contention at the top of the stretch. But he was bothered and Javier Castellano had to steady slightly, losing momentum when Forte passed and came over, closing a hole between Mage and Rocket Can. Once the Gustavo Delgado trainee got going, he closed the gap on Cyclone Mischief in third but ran out of ground. By Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champ Good Magic, Mage is out of Puca, a daughter of Big Brown. She’s a stakes-winning half-sister to Grade 1-winning turf router Finnegan’s Wake. Luis Saez takes over Mage's reins for the Florida Derby. Fourth in the standings, Saez is winning at a 31 percent clip this meet. Contender.  


5. Mr. Peeks (30-1)

Mr. Peeks is still a maiden after two front-running attempts in sprints. This will be his first start for new trainer Saffie Joseph Jr., who is 25 percent with first-time routers (51 percent in the money) and 25 percent with runners who have followed a sprint-sprint-route pattern (56 percent in the money). His best speed rating so far is 88, which isn’t good enough for this field. Pass.


Mr. Peeks makes his first start for Saffie Joseph Jr. The confirmed pacesetter is still a maiden and lost ground in the stretch in both starts at six furlongs. California Chrome’s son likely will be part of the pace scenario along with stablemate Mr. Ripple. Pass.


6. Nautical Star (30-1)

Nautical Star is also new to the Joseph barn. By Dixie Chatter, this colt was fourth on debut at Oaklawn before breaking his maiden last out, fending off the runner-up by a desperate nose. Both races were contested at six furlongs, and he earned nearly identical speed ratings for them, an 87 and 89. Like his new stablemate Mr. Peeks, this will be his first attempt at a route. Pass.

In his last start, Dixie Chatter’s son made a sustained drive to win a six-furlong maiden event at Oaklawn by a nose, getting his final furlong in a sharp 12.47 seconds. Nautical Star posted a pre-race five-furlong breeze in 59.72, second-best of 27, and looked good while outworking stakes-placed West Coast Cowboy. The dark bay colt has a sprinter/miler’s pedigree, is making a considerable class leap, and has never raced at Gulfstream. But I liked his race and recent work. Exotics.


7. Il Miracolo (30-1)

I feel like I’ve said some version of this at least once, maybe twice, about Il Miracolo, but here we are again. This colt has been beaten by a combined 66 lengths in his last four starts, all stakes or graded stakes. Trainer Antonio Sano does add first-time blinkers, which has given him success at a 25 percent clip (41 percent in the money). But adding blinkers doesn’t add talent. Pass.


One of the many “Why?” horses in the Florida Derby, Il Miracolo has been beaten like a piñata in his last four races, all stakes. Pass.


8. Mr. Ripple (30-1)

A son of Dialed In, Mr. Ripple won his mile debut in gate-to-wire fashion by 9 1/4 lengths, beating fellow long shot Il Miracolo, who was second that day. In his second outing, he was third behind Cyclone Mischief and most recently was second in an optional claimer over this distance, losing by two lengths after having set most of the pace. He earned a 92 speed rating in his first two outings but just an 80 in his last race. Edgar Zayas will be aboard for Saffie Joseph Jr., and they’re a potent combination. Unfortunately, I don’t think that helps this colt’s chances. Pass.


In his first start of the season, Mr. Ripple saw a fading rear view of Cyclone Mischief while that one galloped to a 5 3/4-length victory in an optional claiming event. Next out, the son of 2011 Florida Derby hero Dialed In raced between horses in a 1 1/8-mile contest and finished second to the more experienced Classic Catch. Mr. Ripple will be wide around the first turn while Zayas sends him to the front. Doubtful Mr. Ripple will take them gate to wire, but he could hold on for a piece. Lower exotics.



9. Cyclone Mischief (8-1)

Cyclone Mischief threw a clunker in the Holy Bull (G3) as the favorite but redeemed himself with a third place finish in the Fountain of Youth (G2) after making all the pace, beaten by just 5 3/4 lengths. He managed to cut across the field from post 8 in that 1 1/16-mile event, which is no mean feat at Gulfstream. He’ll have more room to work with before the turn this time, but he clearly has gate speed. Unfortunately, there are several to his inside that also will likely seek the lead. Javier Castellano is one of the best in the business, so I’m confident he will work out a good trip. Contender.


Cyclone Mischief had every chance to win the Fountain of Youth Stakes but tired in the stretch. Into Mischief’s son likes to be forwardly placed, and he’ll get a wide trip. He also regresses every other race. Pass.


10. Fort Bragg (5-1)

Fort Bragg began his career with Bob Baffert, and this will be his second start for new trainer Tim Yakteen. In his last two outings, the son of Tapit finished a non-threatening third in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) and fifth in the San Felipe (G2). Joel Rosario, who has only two graded wins in 2023 (both on turf), will be aboard for the first time. Before his transfer, Fort Bragg was one of Baffert’s B or C runners, finishing behind ex-stablemates Speed Boat Beach, Hejazi and Carmel Road, though he did defeat Reincarnate to break his maiden in his third start. This colt has posted three consecutive speed ratings of 93 or better, giving him some of the best numbers in the field. Contender.


Fort Bragg traveled east looking for a softer group of rivals. Last year, Fort Bragg bested eventual Sham Stakes (G3) winner Reincarnate but hasn’t progressed. By Tapit out of a stakes-winning turf sprinter, Fort Bragg finished 5 1/2 lengths behind Practical Move in the San Felipe in his first start for Tim Yakeen. Previously, Fort Brag finished third, 7 1/2 lengths behind Practical Move in the Los Alamitos Futurity. Joel Rosario can hustle Fort Bragg to the front, but they’ll have a wide trip around the first turn. Yakeen has three winners from 20 3-year-old starters making their second start off the layoff. Exotics.


11. Forte (4-5)

I picked against Forte last out in the Fountain of Youth (G2), thinking him vulnerable off the layoff. He showed me with a career-best 103-speed rating performance. That gives him three triple-digit races with a 96 sandwiched in between for his neck victory in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1). Trainer Todd Pletcher is 25 percent with last-race winners (58 percent in the money), 26 percent with runners second off the layoff (55 percent in the money), and 19 percent in graded stakes (51 percent in the money). Regular rider Irad Ortiz Jr. remains aboard, and when riding for Pletcher, he wins at a 39 percent clip (73 [ercent in the money). Though he drew poorly, Ortiz will get him a good trip. One to beat.


The question on everyone’s mind is, “Can Forte handle 1 1/8 miles while breaking from post 11?”  Irad Ortiz Jr. is aggressive and will put Forte in a good position down the backstretch. Forte has a good mind, a couple of gears and tactical speed, along with the best speed ratings in the field. Contender.


12. Dubyuhnell (6-1)

Dubyuhnell won the Remsen (G2) with a 100 Brisnet Speed Rating effort but utterly flopped as the favorite in the Sam F. Davis (G3), finishing eighth, beaten by 19 lengths. Normally I wouldn’t take an Aqueduct winner seriously, but that Remsen number sure looked good. In retrospect, maybe not so much. This is a more talented field, overall, than he faced at Tampa Bay Downs, and the far outside post won’t do him any favors. I do think he can pick up a minor placing, however. Exotics.


Dubyuhnell’s lone victories have been over sloppy tracks. Toss his first start of this season. The Danny Gargan trainee was bumped, had to steady hard and go wide around the first turn. He was climbing down the backstretch, then taken four wide around the final turn and was toast. Good Magic’s son is out of the multiple Graded-winning sprinter Wild Gams and has a victory at 1 1/8 miles. He has tactical speed, and Jose Ortiz is hitting the board at 49 percent this meet. Exotics.


Final thoughts

Ashley:  How? How did all the favorites draw the extreme outside? Never in my life. OK, that was more like an initial thought, but I keep circling back to it.

I got cute and picked against Forte in the Fountain of Youth, so I won’t  make that mistake again. As far as filling out the placings, that seems straightforward, too, as I don’t particularly like any of the long shots. Someone pass me a glass of water because I’m eating chalk.

Laurie: Over the last decade, every Florida Derby winner won their previous start, and they all gained ground or extended their lead in the stretch, an excellent indicator of handling extra distance. Nine of the 10 favorites hit the top four, but only two won.

It’s no secret that Gulfstream Park’s dirt track has a strong speed bias. Only two stalkers have won the Florida Derby in 10 years. Both chased the speed through 23, 46, and 1:10-type early fractions. We could see those fractions again this year with the Saffie Joseph Jr. entry of Mr. Peeks and Mr. Ripple, who should ensure a quick early pace.

The starting gate for the 1 1/8-mile race is within strides of the first turn, so outside posts are the kiss of death for most horses, especially those with speed. Only two colts in the last 10 years have won from post 8. But Big Brown (2008) cleared the field from post 12 and won by five lengths. His trainer later admitted to giving the colt steroids, so take it as you will.

The Saffie Joseph Jr. entry of Mr. Peeks and Mr. Ripple should ensure a quick early pace. After that, Mage, Cyclone Mischief, West Coast Cowboy and Dubyuhnell may settle behind or press the top pair while Fort Bragg and Forte follow.

The only horses who gained ground or extended their lead in their previous start are Nautical Star and Forte. They’re also the only ones who captured their last start. Although four contenders have experience at 1 1/8 miles, Dubyuhnell and Mr. Ripple are the only ones who hit the board.

Forte faces a big task but has push-button speed and keeps himself out of trouble. The only chink in the armor is his wide post, but Irad Ortiz Jr. should be able to work out a decent trip.    




11. Forte (4-5)

11. Forte (4-5)

4. Mage (10-1)

4. Mage (10-1)

9. Cyclone Mischief (8-1)

12. Dubyuhnell (6-1)

10. Fort Bragg (5-1)

6. Nautical Star (30-1)


Meet Laurie Ross

 HRN Pedigree Analyst 


 Published Author

 Pedigree Research/Consultation/Sales 

 ThoroFan Board Member

 Member – NTWAB

Through hands-on work at barns, I learned valuable lessons about Thoroughbred conformation, gait, and temperament and later worked withThoroughbred rescue/re-train organizations. I have committed my passion for horses to the intensive study of pedigree and breeding theory for the last 20 years. 

I support clients with all aspects of pedigree/breeding analysis, research, sales, catalogue review, and recommendations on claims or private sales. Clients include national leading owners, racing/breeding syndicates, the little guy with one mare, and everyone in between. 10-20% of all proceeds are donated to Thoroughbred rescue & retraining groups. Check out my website, Iron Maidens Thoroughbreds, and the IMTBreds blog.

I welcome your questions regarding pedigree, handicapping, and breeding. If you would like me to cover a specific topic, please contact me. 

Twitter: @IMTBreds
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