Kentucky Derby

Florida Derby Preview: Gunnevera Looks to Keep the Dream Alive

Lauren King/Coglianese Photo

Antonio Sano will saddle Gunnevera for a scheduled start in Saturday’s Grade 1, $1 million Xpressbet.com Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park with the lifelong dream of his father fresh in his mind.  Seven years after leaving his native Venezuela, Sano will be living that dream when multiple graded stakes winner Gunnevera faces 10 other 3 year-olds entered in the 66th running of Gulfstream’s signature event that will serve as a final steppingstone to this year’s Kentucky Derby.

Currently sitting second (behind UAE Derby winner Thunder Snow) on the Road to the Kentucky Derby points standings, Peacock Racing Stables’ Gunnevera has been installed as the 9-5 morning-line favorite for the Florida Derby, which offers 170 qualifying points on a 100-40-20-10 basis.

“The horse is a blessing.  This is the biggest opportunity in my life,” Sano said.  “It’s a new life.  Venezuela is history.  Now I am here in America.  I’m very proud and excited.”

Gunnevera graduated from the maiden ranks at Gulfstream on July 16 in his third start after finishing behind Three Rules in his debut last June and in the Birdonthewire Stakes three weeks later.  The Kentucky-bred colt followed up his graduation with a 5 3/4-length triumph in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special in August.  He took a step back with an off-the-board finish in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, but he returned to winning form while romping in the Grade 3, $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot in November.

In his 3-year-old debut, Gunnevera’s momentum was stopped by a bumping incident when leaving the turn into the homestretch, but he recovered to finish second behind front-running victor Irish War Cry in the Grade 2, $350,000 Lambholm South Holy Bull at Gulfstream on February 4.  There was no stopping Gunnevera in the Grade 2, $400,000 Xpressbet.com Fountain of Youth on March 4, when he rallied from 10th to win going away by 5 3/4 lengths for his second Gulfstream victory.

“The horse started out strong, and with the longer the distances, he has become stronger and stronger,” said Sano, who expressed confidence that Gunnevera will be suited to the 1 1/8-mile distance of the Florida Derby.

Trainer Todd Pletcher has entered both Always Dreaming and Battalion Runner in a quest for his fourth Florida Derby success, although Battalion Runner was entered as a backup and is not expected to run.  Battalion Runner is rated second in the morning line at 3-1, while Always Dreaming is third at 4-1.

Always Dreaming, owned by MeB Racing, Viola Racing, St. Elias Stables, and Brooklyn Boyz Stables, finished in the money in his first two starts last year before breaking his maiden by 11 1/2 lengths at Tampa Bay Downs in his first race around two turns in January.  The son of Bodemeister came back on March 4 to capture a 1 1/8-mile allowance at Gulfstream by 4 lengths.

The Florida Derby, which will highlight a card with nine stakes worth $2.45 million in purses, has produced the winners of 58 Triple Crown races, including 23 Kentucky Derby champions.  Nyquist emerged undefeated from last year’s Florida Derby with a 1 1/4-length victory and went on to win the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs five weeks later.

Top Choice

#4 Always Dreaming – I debated for hours about who to put on top between this horse and Gunnevera, but in the end, I pulled the trigger with Always Dreaming.  I just like his progression too much to not play him in this spot.  He dominated a maiden group two races back at Tampa Bay, and last time out, he put away an allowance field at Gulfstream Park with ease.  Visually, he looks to have a ton of ability, but his speed figures are a little bit questionable, and I’m concerned with his experience, as this race will be a steep step up in class compared to his last two wins.  There are too many solid angles, though (such as Pletcher’s success rate at Gulfstream and the “Pletcher Progression”), for me not to take a shot with him here.

Horses to Use in Multi Race Wagers

#11 Gunnevera – Slowly but surely, I’ve jumped on the Gunnevera bandwagon, even though I’ve never picked him to win a race, and I’m STILL not doing it today.  Last time out, he was very impressive, closing from way out of it to win the Fountain of Youth Stakes over Practical Joke and Three Rules.  Gulfstream Park is not an easy place to make up ground as a closer, but the more I watch him, the more he’s reminding me of Orb, who also was able to win at Gulfstream Park as a closer.  There looks to be a good amount of speed in this field, which could set up very well for him.  He’s definitely earned my respect, and I believe he has a huge shot of winning both here and on the first Saturday in May.

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Exotic Plays

#2 Talk Logistics – There is certainly nothing special about this horse, but in a race like this, I could see him getting third and making the trifecta pay something decent.  He was fourth in both the Holy Bull and the Fountain of Youth, but he was well-beaten in each.  Turning the tables on Gunnevera today is not going to happen, but with the extra distance, this horse might show a little bit of improvement.  At 30-1, he’s worth using underneath.

#1 State of Honor – He’s been fairly successful since changing over to dirt three races back after running on Woodbine’s all-weather surface as a 2-year-old.  Although he still doesn’t have a win on dirt, he’s hit the board in three straight stakes races, including a runner up finish in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby last time out.  With his rail draw and normal running style, he’ll go straight to the lead and try to take them wire to wire.  I don’t think he can, but he can hang on for at least a piece of it.

Party Crashers

#8 Impressive Edge – He has the look of a typical Dale Romans horse that could sneak up in a race like this one and make some noise.  Three races back, he broke his maiden by over 4 lengths.  The second-place finisher in that race, Patch, came back to win impressively last time out and is entered in the Louisiana Derby this weekend.  After a disappointing fourth in the Swale Stakes, Impressive Edge dominated an allowance field by 8 lengths last time out.  He’s coming into this race looking very solid, and once you get past the top two in this race, the field is questionable.  He’s a nice upset candidate.

Throw Outs

#10 Three Rules – I’ve never been a believer in this horse, and I won’t start in this race.  He ran a game third last time out in the Fountain of Youth, but I really don’t think extra distance will be something that agrees with him.  He needs to stick to one-turn races.

#9 Battalion Runner – As long as Always Dreaming makes the starting gate, he will be scratching from this race and pointing to a different Derby prep in the next two weeks.  If he were to run, I would consider him a player, but no need to waste time on him here.

#5 Quinientos – He took a shot in the Fountain of Youth last time out and ran poorly to finish sixth.  I’m not sure how he turns the tables today; he looks to be outclassed.

#6 Coleman Rocky – He has run sixth and third in allowance races since breaking his maiden three races back.  This time of year, you look for horses that have a earned a shot in a race like this, and he hasn’t earned it.

#7 Unbridled Holiday – He’s overmatched in a spot like this one, as he was third in an allowance race last time out.  He broke his maiden two races back over the Gulfstream park oval, but he’ll have to elevate his game in a big way here.

#3 Charlie the Greek – He’ll be the longest shot on the board by a WIDE margin, as his two wins have come against claiming company.  He has no shot.

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