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


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.

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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:

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.

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.

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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.