2022 Florida Derby: Field has depth and the “Pletcher Factor”

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Horseplayers often use a term for an obvious handicapping factor. The term is MOTO, short for Master Of The Obvious. As much as the gambling dollar motivates them to seek out horses that pay off handsomely, sometimes the most obvious handicapping factors are right under their noses, and they should not be ignored.

When the discussion moves to the Florida Derby, there are two significant MOTO factors. The first is Todd Pletcher, the all-time leading trainer in the sport in purse earnings, with over $425 million. Pletcher has won 5 of the last 8 runnings of the Florida Derby, and is the all-time leader in the history of the race with 6 wins. Pletcher’s 3-year-olds, based on their elite pedigrees, should never be ignored, and especially when he enters them in the Florida Derby.

RELATED: What to know about the 2022 Kentucky Derby

The second MOTO is to recognize that while the 100-point Kentucky Derby preps are theoretically equal in importance, the Florida Derby is clearly first among equals. An all-time look at 100-point prep races and the Kentucky Derby winners they produced shows a slight advantage to the Florida Derby:

PREP RACE KENTUCKY DERBY WINS
Florida Derby 24
Blue Grass Stakes 23
Wood Memorial 20
Santa Anita Derby 19
Arkansas Derby 7
Louisiana Derby 4
Jeff Ruby Steaks 2
UAE Derby 0

Then there is the recency factor. When the numbers reflect every year since 2001, the Florida Derby remains the most important prep race.

PREP RACE KENTUCKY DERBY WINS
Florida Derby 6
Blue Grass Stakes 1
Wood Memorial 2
Santa Anita Derby 5
Arkansas Derby 4
Louisiana Derby 0
Jeff Ruby Steaks 1
UAE Derby 0

How will the Pletcher factor affect this Florida Derby? The truth is we don’t know, as he has entered a horse who is talented, but inexperienced. Charge It has had only 2 starts, and this will be his first stakes outing. In the first start, he was 2nd by a neck, and then he broke his maiden in his next start by a margin of 8 ½ lengths. He’s a son of the dynamic sire Tapit, who is an unquestionable distance influence.

On the female side of his pedigree, his dam was sired by Indian Charlie, who in 1998 was the winner of the Santa Anita Derby and was 3rd in the Kentucky Derby. Both sides of his pedigree indicate that the mile and a quarter of the Kentucky Derby should be in his wheelhouse. It’s a huge step to go from a maiden win to the Florida Derby, but if Pletcher has entered the horse here, he must feel that it is a risk worth taking.

RELATED: Speedy Epicenter wins Louisiana Derby

In regard to the 2nd MOTO, all that needs to be said is that winning the Florida Derby is never an easy task. The race almost always has a deep and talented field, and this year is no exception.  In particular, four horses deserve serious consideration. This group begins with Simplification, who is trained by the talented Antonio Sano. He has been the dominant horse in the series of 3-year-old stakes races at Gulfstream Park, and he could be the betting favorite in the Florida Derby. In order, he has won the Mucho Macho Man Stakes, was 2nd in the Holy Bull, and won the Fountain of Youth.

Another major contender is White Abarrio, a Saffie Joseph trainee who was the winner of the Holy Bull in his only start this year. Also likely to be in the race is the Brian Lynch-trained Classic Causeway, who has been impressive in winning the Sam F. Davis Stakes and the Tampa Bay Derby in his 2 starts this year.

Finally, trainer Mark Casse is likely to run Pappacap, who was 2nd in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He was a disappointment in the Risen Star Stakes last time out, and he will need a big performance here to make it into the field in Louisville.

In summation, when evaluating the Florida Derby, always give consideration to Todd Pletcher and always respect the history of the race and the depth of the field. This is a race that should provide some important answers regarding the ultimate makeup of the Kentucky Derby field.

How to watch the 2022 Florida Derby

With the 148th Kentucky Derby just five weeks away (Saturday, May 7th on NBC), the Grade 1 Florida Derby awards Kentucky Derby qualifying points on a 100-40-20-10 scale for the top four finishers. Coverage airs Saturday, April 2nd at 6pm ET on CNBC.

NBC Sports will also present the Gulfstream Park Oaks on Saturday, one of the major prep races on the “Road to the Kentucky Oaks.” Saturday’s show will also include live coverage of the Jeff Ruby Steaks, a 100-point Kentucky Derby qualifying race. Coverage will be streamed live on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

Al Bernstein has worked as a statistician on NBC’s horse racing telecasts since the inaugural Breeders’ Cup in 1984.

Flightline, Pletcher, Godolphin lead way at Eclipse Awards

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Pat McDonogh/USA TODAY NETWORK
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PALM BEACH, Fla. — Flightline ran away in all six of his races, and ran away with top honors at the Eclipse Awards on Thursday night.

And trainer Todd Pletcher, for the first time in nearly a decade, received the sport’s top prize as well.

Flightline – the now-retired winner of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic to cap an unbeaten six-race career – won Horse of the Year as well as the Eclipse as top Older Dirt Male. It was no surprise that Flightline took home both awards, and he’s now standing stud.

“We’ll hope that his future is as bright as his past,” co-owner Kosta Hronis said.

Godolphin was also a double winner, sweeping the Eclipses as top owner and top breeder for the second consecutive year. It was also the third consecutive top-owner Eclipse for Godolphin.

“This is truly a golden era for Godolphin racing,” said Michael Banahan, the stable’s director of bloodstock. “And these awards and accolades recognize how special it is.”

It was Pletcher’s eighth Eclipse, extending his record for the most by any trainer, and his first since 2014. It was one of the few close races in the voting; Pletcher got 108 first-place votes, while four-time Eclipse winner Chad Brown got 95 and finished second.

“This really is not an individual award. This is a team award,” Pletcher said. “This is an award about the owners, and most importantly, the horses.”

Irad Ortiz Jr. won the Eclipse as top jockey for the fourth time in the last five years; he tied Pat Day and Javier Castellano for third-most in history, behind only seven-time winner Jerry Bailey and five-time winner Laffit Pincay Jr.

Ortiz led all jockeys with more than $37 million in purses in 2022.

“Wow,” Ortiz said. “It’s been an amazing year for me.”

Forte won the Eclipse as 2-year-old male, and will enter this year’s Triple Crown season as one of the early favorites.

“We’re all in this game for a horse like Forte,” said Mike Repole, the horse’s co-owner along with Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola and Teresa Viola. “We’re all in this game to one day maybe own a 2-year-old that has a chance. It’s great to have the Kentucky Derby favorite. … Forte’s an incredible horse.”

Epicenter won the 3-year-old male Eclipse, after running second at both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, then winning the Jim Dandy and Travers at Saratoga over the summer.

Wonder Wheel was the winner as 2-year-old filly, while Nest won the Eclipse in the 3-year-old filly division. Malathaat was the Eclipse winner for older dirt female, Goodnight Olive for female sprinter and Regal Glory for female turf horse.

Elite Power was picked as the top male sprinter, Modern Games won the Eclipse for male turf horse, and Hewick was the Eclipse winner in the steeplechase division.

Jose Antonio Gomez won as top apprentice jockey.

The Eclipse Awards are voted on by members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Daily Racing Form and National Turf Writers And Broadcasters.

Trainer Bob Baffert’s ban from racing in New York is over

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Courier Journal/USA TODAY Sports
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Bob Baffert can once again enter horses at New York’s major tracks.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s one-year ban by the New York Racing Association ended Wednesday, allowing him to enter horses as soon as Thursday.

“I was disappointed they even did it, but it’s water under the bridge,” Baffert told The Associated Press by phone.

He was suspended last June for repeated medication violations, although none of them occurred in New York. He was barred from Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. A panel credited Baffert for time served for an initial suspension, which allowed him to return this week.

Aqueduct is currently holding its 44-day winter meet that runs through March 26. Baffert doesn’t typically run horses this time of year in New York; he targets the biggest stakes races at Belmont in the spring and Saratoga in the summer.

Baffert remains under a two-year ban by Churchill Downs Inc., which sidelined him after Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for a substance that is not allowed on race day. The penalty expires shortly after the Kentucky Derby in May. However, Baffert is fighting the suspension in federal court.

The Southern California-based trainer has a big weekend coming up around the country, although not in New York.

He has horses running at three tracks on Saturday.

Defunded is entered in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream in Florida, where Baffert assistant Jimmy Barnes will be on hand.

Arabian Knight goes into the $750,000 Southwest Stakes as the early favorite at Oaklawn in Arkansas. Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby prep race a record-tying five times and will travel to Hot Springs to watch the 3-year-old colt.

“It’s going to be a good test for him. The only way to find out is to run him long,” he said. “It’s going to take a superior horse to do that and I’m hoping that he is.”

The Southwest offers Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the top five finishers. Arabian Knight won’t receive any points regardless of his placing because of Baffert’s Derby ban.

Hopper will run in the $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita.

On Sunday at the same track, Baffert has entered four of the five horses set to run in the $200,000 San Vicente Stakes for 3-year-olds.