Kentucky Derby Trail: Fountain Blues

Kentucky Derby Trail:  Fountain Blues
Photo: Equi-Photo/Ryan McAlinden
First Samurai, who won via disqualification, races ahead of Flashy Bull (10) in the Fountain of Youth.
You know it's a strange day on the Triple Crown trail when you have four stakes and the two most impressive horses seen are in a maiden race and a workout. Although heavy favorites Brother Derek and First Samurai emerged victorious, the latter on a disqualification, it still left most people wanting more.

There was nothing wrong with Brother Derek's victory in the March 4 Santa Catalina Stakes (gr. II), which in one person's muddled opinion puts him on top of an ambiguous list of contenders for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). The son of Benchmark showed he can at least sit back off horses, even though he did pull briefly early on. And by answering that question it opens a new avenue for the four-time graded stakes winner.

But the bottom line is that he was the 1-2 favorite against a field that included no graded stakes winners, only one minor off-the-turf stakes winner, two former claimers, and three horses coming off maiden victories. The only other horse in single-digit odds was the 3-1 Latent Heat, who had only run twice and had never been farther than seven furlongs.

With that said, Brother Derek has no control over who runs against him, and he did what was necessary to get the job done. And the final time was a solid 1:41 4/5, as was his :06 2/5 final sixteenth. But it's worth remembering that he's been racing without a break since September and turning in some huge speed figures, so let's see if Dan Hendricks can keep him going all the way to the Derby and have him peaking on the first Saturday in May.

Sacred Light, an improving son of Holy Bull, continues to show progress, and was able to benefit from the contentious pace to pick up the pieces for second. The highly regarded Latent Heat, who was bet down to 3-1 second choice, didn't have much of a chance against Brother Derek coming off only two sprints in his career and going to the lead after a quarter of a mile. He'll need time to recover from a minor shin problem and will miss the Derby.

The Fountain of Youth (gr. II) was ugly in that you had the first-place finisher, Corinthian, lose his cool going to the gate and again in the gate, and then turn the stretch run into a roller derby jam. You had First Samurai losing the lead turning for home after setting tedious fractions of :48 1/5 and 1:12 1/5 over a fast, watered-down track. And you had five horses within 1 3/4 lengths of each other at the finish. The speed gurus no doubt will rip this race apart, especially considering the final time of 1:49 was four-fifths slower than an allowance race earlier on the card won by Sunriver. In fact, both the Fountain of Youth and the Swale Stakes (gr. II) were run slower than earlier allowance races, which could indicate that the track got slower and drier as the day went on.

To his credit, however, First Samurai did battle back twice in the stretch after being squeezed into the rail and later shoved out to the middle of the track by Corinthian. He may very well have "bounced" a little after his gut-wrenching sprint debut in the Hutcheson (gr. II), in which he pressed a blazing pace. One other possibility is that the horse, normally a stalker, simply got bored on the lead and didn't become interested until Corinthian's rude wake-up call. We really won't know what this horse is all about until he goes back to his stalking style.

As for Corinthian, what can you say? This is the third time in a row he's lost it, whether it's mounting the pony in the post parade, throwing a fit in the gate and having to be scratched or balking behind the gate and running like a drunken sailor in the stretch. It's frustrating for trainer Jimmy Jerkens, who is well aware just how talented this horse is.
Even with his antics he's still finished first in his last three races.

So, would he have won had he kept a straight course? It sure looked that way turning for home, but we'll never know if First Samurai would have toughened up and fought back to win. Corinthian also leaned in on Jazil several times in his allowance victory on Feb. 2 and let that horse come back at him as well. But in both races, Corinthian was holding his rivals safe in the final yards and never was in danger of being caught. In the Fountain of Youth, he actually appeared to be increasing his margin slightly in the final yards.

Corinthian obviously has a tendency to get goofy once he sticks his head in front, and because of his erratic behavior before and during a race, it's going to be difficult to have a lot of confidence in him wherever he runs. And that is a shame, because he is a talented colt who is improving with every race. If he showed the same kind of improvement mentally he'd be a rock-solid Derby contender fighting for the top spot. First Samurai's trainer, Frank Brothers, knows all too well what Jerkens is going through, having trained Corinthian's sire, Pulpit, who also was a handful, but not this bad.

And let's not forget Flashy Bull, who ran yet another strong race, actually losing by only a neck, despite getting hung four-wide on the first turn after breaking from the outside post. One of these days this colt's honesty and perseverance will pay off with a big stakes victory. He also was coming back again at the finish, as was My Golden Song, who appeared to be going nowhere along the inside on the far turn. When three horses come back like that, it's usually more a case of the winner allowing them to do it, rather than all three finding renewed energy at the same time.

That would suggest the race was a toss, especially considering the first five horses in the early running occupied the first five spots at the finish. The closers, headed by Great Point, never made even the slightest impact, with Great Point getting banged up coming out of the gate.

Getting back to the opening graph's reference to the impressive maiden winner and worker, they are Bernardini and Strong Contender, who are two of the most impressive-looking 3-year-olds seen this year. Unfortunately, each has only two career starts.

Bernardini, a son of A.P. Indy, out of the top-class stakes winner Cara Rafaela, has been highly regarded since day one, and he looked magnificent Saturday, drawing off on his own to win his second career start by 7 3/4 lengths in 1:35 2/5, coming home his final quarter in :24 3/5.

What was most impressive was his fluid stride and the power he generates. He's a grand-looking horse and has a great deal of class about him. But he lost time last year due to a throat problem and trainer Tom Albertrani and owner Darley Stable are not going to rush him to make the Derby. Albertrani said the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) is still a possibility if things fall into place.

Strong Contender, who looked awesome working five furlongs in a bullet :59 3/5 Saturday morning, still has the Derby on his agenda, with preps in the Lane's End (gr. II) and Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I). The son of Maria's Mon stands about 17 hands and his stride is something to see. It would be a surprise if both these horses didn't become major forces in the 3-year-old division. It's just a shame they got such late starts.

Sunriver could be a sleeper following his gutsy allowance victory, in which the full brother to Ashado tracked Superfly, put him away at the head of the stretch, and then dug in to hold off the late surge of High Blues, who was coming off a solid third behind Corinthian in an allowance race. Sunriver's stablemate, Exclusive Quality, showed off his exceptional speed winning a seven-furlong allowance race in 1:21, wearing down the Albertrani-trained Songster. But the son of Elusive Quality is built more like a sprinter and he likely will be kept at shorter distances.

From a timing standpoint, here is a possible plan of attack for the Pletcher platoon. Bluegrass Cat is committed to the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) on March 18. Keyed Entry is pointing for the Gotham (gr. III) the same day, leaving John Velazquez and agent Angel Cordero with a tough decision to make. Cordero said he can only hope the owners of the horse he doesn't choose don't hold it against him. Sunriver or My Golden Song would seem to be on course for the Illinois Derby (gr. II) on April 8, with the other remaining in Florida for the April 1 Florida Derby (gr. I). Recent allowance winner Saint Augustus could run in the Lane's End Stakes (gr. II) along with Manchu Prince, a winner of two of his three starts on the grass. High Cotton, trying to regroup from a last-place finish in an allowance race, may run the same day in the Rushaway Stakes. Of course, a lot of this is pure speculation, but it's fun to play trainer when you have an entire Road to the Roses stable in one barn.

The Swale Stakes also was inconclusive, with New York-bred Sharp Humor coming again to defeat the 7-5 favorite Noonmark by a neck in 1:22 for trainer Dale Romans. The race was marred by the fatal injury to Catcominatcha, a hard-knocking horse who was making his 10th career start in eight months.

Saturday's Battaglia Memorial at Turfway saw the triumphant return of the recently gelded Laity, who won by a half-length over the fast-closing Pair of Kings, who obviously has improved tremendously since breaking his maiden for a $15,000 claiming tag.

The one horse who had been on a good schedule for the Derby is the unbeaten Barbaro, a winner of all four of his starts, including three stakes victories, on dirt and grass. But that good schedule likely will end once he runs in the Florida Derby, giving him a nine-week layoff from the Holy Bull (gr. III), and then a five-week layoff into the Kentucky Derby. Trainer Michael Matz is throwing the book away with this odd schedule, but maybe his equestrian background will enable him to write a new chapter in training a Derby horse.

Last year, another former equestrian, Tim Ritchey, threw the book away with his twice-a-day training regimen for Afleet Alex, and while he didn't win the Derby, we all know what happened in the Preakness and Belmont (gr. I). One has to be skeptical about Barbaro's schedule, while remaining open to the possibility that times are changing faster than we think. With the way things are going so far, this definitely is the year to grasp on to anything.

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