It’s only late February and the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) is still more than two months away, so why does it feel like the $400,000 Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth (gr. II) is the official start to the Triple Crown season?
It’s probably because the Feb. 26 race at Gulfstream Park pits the current Derby favorite, Union Rags, against two undefeated and top-class horses from the barn of leading trainer Todd Pletcher, Algorithms and Discreet Dancer. Will one of those three heavyweights separate themselves from the pack, or will the entire landscape of the trail be changed by one of the other five sophomores in the much-anticipated event? We'll find out at about 5:15 p.m. EST on Sunday.
Previously a 1 1/8-mile test, the Fountain of Youth will be run at 1 1/16 miles for the first time since 2004.
Despite being beaten a head by Hansen in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) Nov. 5 and losing out on 2-year-old championship honors, Chadds Ford Stable’s Union Rags has remained the Derby favorite over the winter. He will now make his 3-year-old debut after a series of workouts at Palm Meadows for trainer Michael Matz. The last one came on Feb. 19 when the son of Dixie Union went four furlongs in :48 4/5 with assistant trainer Peter Brett aboard. Will he be as good, or better, than he was last year? That remains to be seen, but Matz wouldn’t trade places with anyone.
“He’s as ready as he could possibly be other than running in a race,” said Matz of the 122-pound high weight. “From the time he spent taking it easy at Skara Glen Farm in Wellington early this year until he came back to us at Palm Meadows, he hasn’t missed a beat. He’s hit every workout right on schedule. He’s grown up and matured."
The bay colt won the first three starts of his career in resounding fashion, tallying by a combined total of more than 14 lengths. The final two came in New York in the Saratoga Special (gr. II) and the Champagne (gr. I), which set him up as the heavy favorite for the Breeders’ Cup. A wide trip and the inability to stay on a straight path in the stretch cost him that day, but the massive Union Rags, who stands about 17 hands, certainly has the looks of a major Derby contender.
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Union Rags, the 2-1 second choice on the morning line, will be piloted by Julien Leparoux, who takes over riding duties after leading Gulfstream jockey Javier Castellano decided to stay in Pletcher’s corner. They will break from post 7.
Castellano opted to stick with Starlight Racing’s Algorithms, a Bernardini colt who is perfect in three starts. Two of them have come at Gulfstream—a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race on Dec. 16 and a decisive five-length romp in the Jan. 29 Holy Bull (gr. III) over a sloppy track. The bay colt easily put away Hansen that day, sending the champion packing to New York.
This will be the first start at two turns for Algorithms, who has worked twice since the Holy Bull.
Algorithms will break from post 2 while carrying 120 pounds. A $170,000 yearling, he is out of Ava Knowsthecode, by 1987 Florida Derby (gr. I) winner Cryptoclearance. He was installed as the 8-5 morning-line favorite.
Pletcher’s other colt is E. Paul Robsham’s homebred Discreet Dancer, a Florida-bred who has shown devastating speed in both of his starts. The son of Discreet Cat set the 5 1/2-furlong Gulfstream track record Dec. 3 when breaking his maiden by 9 3/4 lengths, then returned a month later to roll to a 5 1/2-length optional claiming victory at one mile.
There will be little doubt that jockey John Velazquez will send Discreet Dancer (3-1) to the front from post 5. Going two turns does not seem to be an issue for the colt, according to Pletcher.
“Watching him train and watching his mile race the way he finished and galloped out, I'm pretty sure he'll handle more distance,” said Pletcher, who has saddled two of the last five Fountain of Youth winners. “Nothing he's done in any of his breezes or his two races that have indicated to us that he has any real distance limitations.
“I don’t like running two horses against each other ever, especially two very talented colts that are undefeated. One of them is going to have a loss after this race, and you hate that. But at the same time, I think it’s best for each horse’s development; that’s mainly where our focus is, not so much just about this weekend, but hopefully moving forward, as well."
The other five in the race come in with less hype, but all have shown the ability to run. The Nick Zito-trained Casual Trick broke his maiden impressively at Churchill Downs in November and ran a good second in the Jan. 1 Gulfstream Park Derby, but turned in a clunker in a Jan. 29 optional claimer last out. The colt is also by Bernardini.
“I want to think he just didn’t like the off track (rated good) the last time and just throw that race out,” Zito said. “He had shown enough to be favored, so we’ll take a shot.”
The Calder-based Csaba enters off a tiring fifth-place finish in the Dec. 18 Dania Beach Stakes on turf; Fort Loudon, a four-time winner at Calder, was fourth in the Holy Bull; while Neck 'n Neck and News Pending both have one win from six starts. Neck ‘n Neck was fifth last out in the Feb. 4 Sam F. Davis (gr. III) at Tampa Bay Downs. He will add blinkers for trainer Ian Wilkes.
$400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II, Race 11, 5:13 p.m.), 3YOs, 1 1/16 Miles PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer 1. Neck 'n Neck (KY), J Lezcano, 116, I R Wilkes
2. Algorithms (KY), J Castellano, 120, T A Pletcher
3. Fort Loudon (FL), R Maragh, 120, S I Gold
4. Casual Trick (KY), C S Nakatani, 116, N P Zito
5. Discreet Dancer (FL), J R Velazquez, 116, T A Pletcher
6. News Pending (KY), K J Desormeaux, 116, D L Romans
7. Union Rags (KY), J R Leparoux, 122, M R Matz
8. Csaba (KY), P Lopez, 116, P A Gleaves