Favorites in the Florida Derby have dominated in the 21st Century. Eight winners have returned less than $7 on the front end, including five top choices.
During the previous decade only one favorite made the Gulfstream Park winner’s circle: High Fly, which paid $2.80.
In the past 10 renewals, there have been only two double-digit payoffs, both in fields of 10: Friends Lake in ’04 returned $76.80 and Hal’s Hope in ’00 paid $15.80.
One of three favorites during that time span also captured the Kentucky Derby in ’01, Monarchos, who defeated a dozen others in the South Florida track’s showcase race.
Likely favorite in the 59th Florida Derby will be Rule, who won the San F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs for his fourth consecutive victory. John Velasquez, who was aboard the winning Quality Road last year, retains the mount.
Trainer Todd Pletcher will redirect Eskendereya to the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 3, but most likely will still saddle the favorite since Rule is the morning line 5-2 choice.
Eskendereya destroyed the 64th Fountain of Youth field by 8 ½ lengths, tying the largest margin of victory by Spectacular Bid in ’79. The son of Bold Bidder later won the Florida Derby by 4 ½ lengths tying the lowest payoff posted by Honest Pleasure in ’76: $2.10.
Spectacular Bid won the Kentucky Derby while Honest Pleasure finished second to Bold Forbes at Churchill Downs.
Rule, the son of Roman Ruler, will break from post 7 against 10 challengers, headed by Radiohead, the early second choice at 3-1 who drew the outside post.
Radiohead defeated last year’s Champagne Stakes winner Homeboykris by 3 ¼ lengths in an allowance contest at a mile on Feb. 27. He scored in the Norfolk Stakes last June across the Atlantic at the Royal Ascot.
Soaring Empire, 20-1, who drew the rail, will try to come close to his sire’s performance in ’03 when Empire Maker posted the largest margin of victory – 9 ¼ lengths.
Lentenor, 6-1, a full brother to ’06 winner Barbaro breaking from post 2, makes his debut on dirt after a maiden score on turf. Ice Box, 15-1, exits post 8 hoping to improve on dad Pulpit’s second-place finish in ’97.
The last time 11 horses ran was when Barbaro triumphed by a half-length over Sharp Humor and went on to score at Louisville.
In ’08, Big Brown defeated Smooth Air by five lengths en route to victory in the Run for the Roses.
The largest field the past two decades was 14 in ’94 when Holy Bull won by 5 ¾ lengths. That field was four horses less than the record established in the’53 inaugural when Sky Ship edged Handsome Teddy by a head.
By the way, Pletcher’s only victory in the Florida Derby was in ’07 when Scat Daddy triumphed by 1 ¼ lengths with Edgar Prado aboard. Prado will guide Radiohead.