By RON FLATTER
LAS VEGAS--With all due respect to races like the Iroquois Stakes, the Delta Downs Jackpot and even the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the road to the Kentucky Derby does not attract a lot of attention before the Fountain of Youth Stakes.
It seems it has always been that way, at least in the run-’em-only-once-a-month era of racing. The very idea that spring has not sprung before the Fountain of Youth has been reinforced by the points system that Churchill Downs has been using the past five years to qualify horses for the Kentucky Derby.
Now that the first Saturday in May is nine weeks away, this first Saturday in March brings the whole road into sharper focus.
Keen observers have already zeroed in on Irish War Cry, the 5-to-2 morning-line favorite for Saturday’s 45th running of the $400,000 Grade 2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park near Miami. The undefeated colt by two-time U.S. champion Curlin was last seen leading from gate to wire winning the Grade 2 Holy Bull over the same 1 1/16-mile course as the Fountain of Youth.
“When he broke his maiden (in November) I couldn’t have imagined he would have won the way he did,” said trainer Graham Motion, who won the Derby six years ago with Animal Kingdom. “He has just handled everything so well. Some horses just seem to handle every step. Knock on wood, he has.”
Irish War Cry drew gate 8 in the field of 11. Holy Bull runner-up Gunnevera drew the 2 with morning-line odds of 7-2. Starting from post position 6, Two-time Grade1 winner Practical Joke is 3-1 in his first race since he overcame a jostled start to finish third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Five of the Fountain of Youth starters have at least one win on Gulfstream’s main track.
Conspicuously absent from the field is Classic Empire. Last year’s 2-year-old champion sweated his way to finish a disappointing third in the Holy Bull. Trainer Mark Casse said that the colt by Pioneerof The Nile is still recovering from the hoof abscess that apparently caused his trouble last month, and that next weekend’s Tampa Bay Derby remains a possibility.
Motion had considered having Irish War Cry skip the Fountain of Youth, too. But he said he quickly talked himself out of it.
“I don’t really need to be skipping races at this point,” he told Gulfstream Park’s publicity department. “He has only run three times. The Fountain of Youth on its own is a big race. I think he needs to be in there.”
Bettors also gravitate to it – and not simply because it is within sight of the Run for the Roses. “The Fountain of Youth will handle more money than any other race so far,” said Patrick McQuiggan, racebook handicapper at South Point here in Las Vegas. “There are two reasons. It has a good-sized field, and it has good-quality horses.”
The Fountain of Youth is one of the two virtual win-and-you’re-in Derby qualifiers on Saturday. The other is the $300,000 Grade 3 Gotham Stakes on the inner, winter dirt at Aqueduct in New York, where course horse El Areeb drew post position 4 and is 6-5 on the morning line. It would be no surprise if he shortened to an odds-on favorite against his nine rivals.
“Fingers crossed, everything is good,” trainer Cal Lynch said. “He breezed good on Sunday and went back to the track (at Laurel Park, Maryland), so everything’s going according to plan.”
Lynch’s plan has been to keep his colt by Exchange Rate racing through the New York winter, one that has brought him victories in Aqueduct’s first two Derby points preps of 2017 – by 11 lengths in the mud in the Jerome and by 4¼ on a fast track in last month’s Withers.
Lynch had toyed with the idea of skipping Saturday’s Gotham and going straight to next month’s Wood Memorial. But like Motion did with Irish War Cry, he felt that the time off would be counterproductive, saying that El Areeb has been “acting like he wants to go do something. I didn’t know if I really felt like sitting on him for another four weeks if he’s going right.”
Maiden winner Cloud Computing drew 9 and is the 5-1 second choice on the morning line. Trained by Chad Brown, the colt by Maclean’s Music closed from seven lengths back to win his six-furlong debut three weeks ago on the same Aqueduct inner track where the Gotham will be run over 1 1/16 miles. Withers runner-up True Timber comes back as a 6-1 third choice drawing gate 6.
‘All others’ are favored in Derby future
The mutuel field other than the 23 nominated horses in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager was the 5-1 favorite in the latest pool that closed Sunday.
McCraken was the most backed individual horse at 6-1. That was before the Sam F. Davis winner was removed from consideration for next weekend’s Tampa Bay Derby. Trainer Ian Wilkes reported that the colt by Ghostzapper suffered what he called a “very minor” injury to his left-front ankle. The next planned stop for McCraken is next month’s Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, Kentucky.
Arrogate is headed to Dubai World Cup
Bob Baffert has gone all the way from leaning against it to committing to it. He confirmed this week that Breeders’ Cup Classic and Pegasus World Cup Invitational winner Arrogate will race March 25 in the $10 million Grade 1 Dubai World Cup.
According to oddschecker.com, European bookmakers have made Arrogate a 4/9 favorite with Mubtaahij at 8-1, Gun Runner 14-1 and Heartbreak City 14-1.