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Florida Derby is crunch time for Fierceness as 2024 Kentucky Derby approaches

Fierceness dominates the Breeders' Cup Juvenile
Todd Pletcher's trainee blazes down the final stretch for a no-doubt victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and establishes himself as an early Kentucky Derby contender.

So far, this has not shaped up as one of those years where there is one or a few dominant horses in the Kentucky Derby prep races. I can’t think of a prep race where a spectacular performance made me say “He could be the one!” There have been some solid performances, but nothing that took my breath away. Looking at the point standings, I can say that trainer Brad Cox has a solid hand at this point, with Rebel Stakes winner Timberlake and Louisiana Derby winner Catching Freedom. The situation is so fluid that the winner of a 100-point prep from this past weekend is likely to not run in the Kentucky Derby. That horse is Endlessly, who won the Jeff Ruby Stakes on the synthetic surface at Turfway Park by 4 lengths. His trainer, Michael McCarthy, says he is a far better horse on turf or synthetic surfaces, so he has targeted the American Turf at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day for his next start.

This Saturday’s Florida Derby is one of those vital races that will earn 100 points to the winner, thus guaranteeing a spot in the Kentucky Derby (normally, between 45 and 50 points is enough to get into the field). This race will feature Fierceness, the Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old of 2023. Since last August, when he won his first career start at Saratoga by over 11 lengths, it has seemed that Fierceness could be the most talented horse in his age group. But it hasn’t been a straightforward path, fitting with the theme of this year. His profile is nothing short of confounding, mixing two great races with two troubled trips where he just couldn’t get the job done. After his race at Saratoga, his trip in the Champagne Stakes at Aqueduct was simply horrible. The chart notes show that he lunged at the start, was jostled by two horses, and had an incredibly wide and tiring trip on a sloppy track that led to him finishing seventh. While many expected he wouldn’t go on to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he ended up entering that race and blowing away the field by over six lengths.

How to watch the 2024 Florida Derby: TV/live stream info, entries, and more

His first start of 2024, however, was another one of those troubled trips. In the Holy Bull Stakes, he had his head turned at the start and then was pinballed between two horses. He was rushed into contention with a wide trip the whole way around and finished a tired third, losing by 3 ½ lengths.

After the Holy Bull, trainer Todd Pletcher said that he would monitor his training to determine if he would move on to the Florida Derby and potentially, the Kentucky Derby. His training since then has been outstanding, and he is the 8/5 morning line favorite for the Florida Derby in a field of 11. But the questions persist. This field is the largest he has ever run in, and he will have to follow up his race at Gulfstream with an effort against a 20-horse field in Louisville. One of the oldest axioms in the sport is that great horses figure out a way to overcome problems in a race. If traffic problems have been connected to his two losses, he now must prove that with maturity, he can overcome them. It is a journey that will begin on Saturday.

Horses to Watch in Saturday’s Florida Derby

Beyond Fierceness, the field for this Florida Derby has some really interesting horses with intriguing people behind them. Most notable is Hades, the 7/2 third choice on the morning line, from the barn of trainer Joe Orseno. Hades is three for three lifetime, with his most recent win in the Holy Bull, where Fierceness was third. Many fans will root for the veteran Orseno, who had the top year of his career in 2020. That year, he won the Preakness with Red Bullet, and later that year, he won two Breeders’ Cup races.

The morning line second choice at 3-1 is the lightly-raced Conquest Warrior from the barn of Hall-of-Famer Shug McGaughey. The Florida Derby will be the first stakes race in the career of this horse, who has won his last two starts. When the usually conservative McGaughey enters a horse in a Grade 1 stakes race with so little seasoning, people take notice. Conquest Warrior was a $1 million yearling purchase, and his trainer is asking him to run to his pedigree and his purchase price.

RELATED: Catching Freedom rallies for Louisiana Derby win

This race also features two horses who were purchased for the same price…a mere $20,000.

The first of these is Frankie’s Empire, who is coming off two impressive stakes efforts at Gulfstream. He won the Swale Stakes in February and then was third in the Fountain of Youth on March 2nd. Trained by the Gulfstream-based Michael Yates, he’s an improving sort who has put forth strong efforts in his recent starts. He should be included in multi-horse wagers.

The other inexpensive purchase is Le Dom Bro, who was second to Frankie’s Empire in the Swale Stakes and then was second in the Fountain of Youth. In a race featuring legendary trainers like Pletcher and McGaughey, this horse is trained by 20-year-old Eniel Cordero. As young as he is, this trainer is no fluke.

Over the last few years, he has emerged as a regular on the Florida circuit, and has done quite well. Despite his relative inexperience, he has won with over 11% of his starters. He’s also from a racing family, as his grandfather was a trainer in his native Puerto Rico, and his father is a blacksmith at tracks in the U.S. The story of an inexpensive horse with a 20-year-old trainer will have my rooting interest.

One other horse to take notice of is the lightly-raced Bail Us Out, who is coming off a maiden win at Gulfstream. Like Fierceness, he is trained by Todd Pletcher and owned by Mike Repole. He was a $700,000 purchase, and they have chosen to enter him here in only the third race of his career.

By virtue of the ups and downs of Fierceness alone, the Florida Derby shapes up as a fascinating race. The winner will get 100 points for the Kentucky Derby, with 50 awarded for 2nd, 25 for 3rd, 15 for 4th and 10 for 5th. Fierceness currently has 36 points, so he will likely need to finish 4th or better to qualify for a trip to Louisville. There are five others in the field with point totals ranging from 10 to 25, but a first or second place finish could qualify a horse for the Kentucky Derby even if they enter the Florida Derby without any points. For example, the lightly raced but highly regarded Conquest Warrior has no points going into the Florida Derby, but a first or second finish is likely to get him into the starting gate in Louisville. The bottom line is that every trainer who sends a horse to the gate for the Florida Derby knows that they need a solid performance to have a chance for the biggest race of all on May 4th.

How to Watch the 2024 Florida Derby

  • Where: Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Florida
  • When: Saturday, March 30
  • Time: 6:00 PM ET
  • TV Channel: CNBC
  • Live Stream: Peacock