With Miller Lite Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) winner Cairo Prince and Remsen Stakes (gr. II) victor Honor Code sitting out the next leg of the Florida sophomore series on the road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), the $400,000 Besilu Stables Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) attracted a strong field of 13.
Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, conditioner of Honor Code, will not go unrepresented in the Feb. 22 event at Gulfstream Park; in fact, his entrant Top Billing seems in good position to follow the path tracked by 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb .
McGaughey won the Fountain of Youth for the first time when the improving Orb came off a Jan. 26 allowance victory to claim his first stakes score en route to Florida Derby (gr. I) and Kentucky Derby success.
Top Billing, a Curlin colt out of the multiple grade III-winning A.P. Indy mare Parade Queen, won a Jan. 25 allowance by 2 3/4 lengths going the 1 1/16-mile distance of his current engagement with a sparkling last-to-first effort. Prior to that effort for breeders William S. Farish and E.J. Hudson Jr., he was second by a neck to fellow Fountain of Youth contender Commissioner in a 1 1/8-mile allowance on Jan. 3.
"I think he is going in the right direction," McGaughey said. "I think he's doing good, he looks good, and everything's in order."
Top Billing will have a tough post to overcome, however, having drawn the 12 hole under regular rider Joel Rosario. He does benefit from a break in the weights; with no prior stakes experience, he carries 116.
WinStar Farm's homebred Commissioner, an A.P. Indy colt trained by Todd Pletcher, broke his maiden last August going nine furlongs at Saratoga Race Course and took the rest of the season off, coming back in that Jan. 3 Gulfstream allowance to win first time off the layup in what Pletcher termed "a stakes-quality allowance race."
"After he broke his maiden, Elliott (Walden) and I looked at the schedule and said there's basically nowhere to run a horse like this around two turns until the Remsen, so we made a decision at that point to give him a little break," Pletcher explained. "We sent him back to WinStar with a 3-year-old campaign in mind."
Commissioner is a son of the stakes-winning mare Flaming Heart, making him a half brother to 2014 Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) runner-up Laugh Track.
"I think he's progressed a lot from the summer," Pletcher added. "He's an A.P. Indy, and you don't necessarily anticipate those horses being July 2-year-olds. He was able to break his maiden at Saratoga, and he's a horse that we've always felt would improve at longer distances."
Carrying 116, Commissioner will be reunited with Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, who rode the colt to victory at Saratoga. He will break from the rail, with stablemate We Miss Artie
alongside in post two.
We Miss Artie carried Ken and Sarah Ramsey's colors to victory in the Dixiana Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) at Keeneland
last October prior to finishing seventh in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) at Santa Anita Park
. In his only start since, the Ontario-bred son of Artie Schiller
came up a head short in the Kitten's Joy Stakes on the Gulfstream grass on Jan. 19. He will be ridden by jockey Joe Bravo in the Fountain of Youth and is the 122-pound top weight.
Both Commissioner and We Miss Artie prepped for the Fountain of Youth with half-mile works on Feb. 16 at Palm Meadows. Commissioner covered the distance in :49.10, while We Miss Artie stopped the clock in :48 flat.
"Both horses breezed really well and I think we're ready to go," said Pletcher, who saddled Violence to a runner-up finish in the Fountain of Youth last season. "Hopefully, we can turn the tables this year."
Honors Stable's Wildcat Red
, who drew off impressively in the Hutcheson Stakes (gr. III) at Gulfstream on Feb. 1 for trainer Jose Garoffalo, will break from the 4 hole in the Fountain of Youth. The Florida-bred son of D'wildcat
has hit the wire first in four of five career starts. He was beaten a head by General a Rod
in the Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year's Day, and the latter will also be in the mix on Saturday from post five.
Owned by J. Armando Rodriguez, the Mike Maker-trained General a Rod—by Roman Ruler
—will have the services of leading rider Javier Castellano. Both General a Rod and Wildcat Red carry 120 pounds.
Chuck and Maribeth Sandford's Almost Famous
, the fourth-place finisher in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream on Jan. 25, drew post eight for the Fountain of Youth. Trainer Pat Byrne will give a leg up to jockey Calvin Borel on Saturday.
The 68th running of the Fountain of Youth will offer qualifying points on the road to the Kentucky Derby, with 50-20-10-5 to the first four finishers.
PP, Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Commissioner (KY), J.R. Velazquez, 116, T A Pletcher
2. We Miss Artie (ON), J. Bravo, 122, T A Pletcher
3. Medal Count (KY), J. Rocco, Jr., 116, D L Romans
4. Wildcat Red (FL), L. Saez, 120, J Garoffalo
5. General a Rod (KY), J. Castellano, 120, M J Maker
6. Casiguapo (KY), J. Lezcano, 116, M Morales
7. C Zee (FL), E.J. Zavas, 116, S I Gold
8. Almost Famous (KY), C.H. Borel, 116, P B Byrne
9. Best Plan Yet (FL), P. Lopez, 120, S I Gold
10. Our Caravan (KY), C.J. Lanerie, 116, M Dilger
11. Hesinfront (KY), A. Jaen, 116, D L Romans
12. Top Billing (KY), J. Rosario, 116, C R McGaughey III
13. East Hall (FL), J.C. Leyva, 116, W A Kaplan
Equipment Changes; 6—Casiguapo—Blinkers off