Fierceness is a Kentucky Derby favorite after Florida Derby win

The Kentucky Derby is less than five weeks away, but it’s clear who will be the favorite in the 150th running of the race. Fierceness’ dominating 13½-length win in Saturday’s $1-million Florida Derby puts him on top of a field that some say is lacking in star power.

The Florida Derby is considered the best predictor of Kentucky Derby success, with 25 horses having won both races. And that doesn’t take into account horses that didn’t win the Florida Derby but did win in Louisville, such as Mage last year, who finished second at Gulfstream Park.

Part of the lack of top names is because of the ban on the trainer considered the best conditioner of 2- and 3-year-olds, Bob Baffert. The Southern California-based trainer won the 2021 Kentucky Derby, his then-seventh win, with Medina Spirit but the result was overturned when the colt tested positive for a legal medication that isn’t allowed on race day. Baffert has dropped all litigation but still maintains the horse’s medication — for a rash — was within the rules.

Churchill Downs banned Baffert from its tracks for two years and then added at least one more year because it didn’t think the trainer showed enough contrition. The Derby qualifying points of any Baffert-trained horse are vacated if they are in the top five.

This is important because the second-best horse is currently considered to be the Baffert-trained Muth, who won Saturday’s $1.5-million Arkansas Derby by two lengths.

With racing canceled at Santa Anita this weekend, Baffert went to the Alabama-Clemson men’s basketball game in L.A., where he told that Muth’s next race will be, “hopefully, [the] Preakness.”

But all the talk on Saturday was about Fierceness’ performance in the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby.

“That was a pretty awesome performance,” said trainer Todd Pletcher of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner. “That’s what we see in the mornings when we breeze him, he’s a special talent. That’s why it was so perplexing his two races that he didn’t run brilliantly. He’s three times brilliant and two times has had off days.

“I think he did really well over the eight weeks [since he last raced]. I think he put on some weight. He strengthened a little bit. He had a really good series of works. We got a better trip [Saturday] and [jockey] John [Velazquez] was able to get into a comfortable rhythm and showed what he’s capable of.”

It was a record-setting margin of victory in the Florida Derby, and a record number of wins by a trainer (eight) and jockey (six).

The final pieces to the Kentucky Derby puzzle will be determined on Saturday with the last three major-point qualifiers: the Santa Anita Derby, the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. The winner gets 100 points and second place gets 50 points, both enough to make the field of 20.

While the Santa Anita Derby won’t be drawn until Wednesday, Baffert has nominated four horses, including Maymun and Imagination, who are likely to be the first and second morning-line favorites. Maymun is undefeated in two starts and Imagination won the San Felipe Stakes. Baffert also has Wine Me Up, second in the San Felipe, and Wynstock, winner of the Los Alamitos Futurity.

Of particular interest is Stronghold, winner of the Sunland Derby, who is trained by Phil D’Amato. Stronghold is on the bubble for a starting spot in the Kentucky Derby and likely needs at least a third-place finish to have a chance of making the field. Presuming that the Bafferts finish first and second, if Stronghold is back in the field, it will be the first time in more than 70 years that there was no California-based or California-bred horse in the Kentucky Derby. It may be longer but records are incomplete.

The best race of the day is expected to be the Blue Grass Stakes, which has Sierra Leone, winner of the Risen Star at Fair Grounds, and Dornoch, winner of the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream.

The Wood Memorial winner hasn’t won the Derby since 2000, when Fusaichi Pegasus won both. Deterministic, winner of both his races including the Gotham Stakes, is the expected favorite.

Barring an injury or change in plans there will be two Japanese horses in the Kentucky Derby. Forever Young qualified on Saturday when he won the UAE Derby at the Meydan Racecourse in Dubai. It was his fifth win in five starts, which included a victory in the Saudi Derby.

The other Japanese horse is likely to be T O Password, undefeated in two starts, who won the Fukuryu Stakes on March 23. No horse from Japan or winner of the UAE Derby has ever won the Kentucky Derby.

There is also a spot in the 20-horse field for the winner of the European Road to the Kentucky Derby, which should be determined Saturday in the Cardinal Condition Stakes at Chelmsford City in Britain.

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