On the morning of Feb. 25, the fog that descended upon Gulfstream Park West was such that no one could even see Gunnevera as the chestnut closer went through his final bit of fine tuning in advance of the $400,000 Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2).
Multiple graded stakes winner Gunnevera proved a most visually impressive specimen in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth Stakes, motoring from last in the 10-horse field with a tremendous three-wide surge to win by 5 3/4 lengths over grade 1 winner Practical Joke, while even-money favorite Irish War Cry finished off the board.
Peacock Racing Stables' Gunnevera came into the Fountain of Youth off a runner-up effort behind Irish War Cry in the Feb. 4 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2)—a race that stamped the latter as one of the early leaders in the division. Hindsight shows the Holy Bull to be a building block of an outing for Gunnevera, who becomes the latest 3-year-old to bid for a supremacy in the ever-changing landscape.
McCraken, the unbeaten, record-setting winner of the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3), was announced this week to have a slight ankle strain that will prevent him from running in the March 11 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2). Meanwhile, reigning juvenile champion Classic Empire emerged from his third-place run in the Holy Bull with a foot abscess and hasn't worked since.
Enter Gunnevera and his closing kick, one that has propelled him into a new stratosphere as the points leader (64) on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
"I feel very happy. The last race he lost the race because he got bumped (on the turn into the stretch)," trainer Antonio Sano said. "This was different—more horses, different speed. I thought 100% that he would win today.
"(Jockey) Javier (Castellano) told me, he did it very easy. For me, it's the first time (having a Derby horse), This is the year. I'm very emotional."
While his last workout was obscured to the point clockers couldn't give him an official time, Gunnevera hasn't exactly been sneaking up the pecking order. In August he did his last-to-first routine to win the Saratoga Special Stakes (G2) at Saratoga Race Course in his fourth start. After finishing fifth to Classic Empire in the Claiborne Breeders' Futurity (G1), Gunnevera ended his juvenile campaign with a 5 3/4-length win in the Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes (G3) Nov. 19.
Where Irish War Cry had things his own way up front in the Holy Bull, the previously unbeaten favorite found himself having to press multiple stakes winner Three Rules on the front end as that one cut an opening quarter in :23.43 and a half in :47.18.
When Practical Joke surged up from midpack and took aim at Three Rules on the far turn while Irish War Cry dropped out of contention, Gunnevera came from the clouds on the outside to confront them both. With only a couple taps from Castellano, Gunnevera left Practical Joke and Three Rules to fight it out for minor honors as he coasted to the wire in 1:44.25 over a track rated fast.
"He's a 3-year-old horse but he acts like a 6-year-old. He's an old pro," Castellano said. "The way he was in the post parade, he was very composed and he waited in the gate. He broke from the gate, and I could have been a little closer to the pace and chased a little bit to secure my spot in the first turn, but I didn't. I took my time with him. I let him follow the pace and he started picking it up little by little.
"Turning for home, I knew I had it. I knew because of the way he did it when I asked him. He responded very well. Last time, it was another thing. I tried to save ground and unfortunately I was completely stopped at the three-eighths pole."
Practical Joke, winner of the grade 1 Champagne and Hopeful Stakes last summer, held for second in his first start since running third in the Nov. 5 Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1). Three Rules came in third, with Talk Logistics and Lookin for Eight rounding out the top five.
"I'm happy with my horse. I think I got the race I needed into my horse," said Chad Brown, trainer of Practical Joke. "(Jockey) Jose (Ortiz) is very happy about the race. He continues to learn a little bit about this horse. He was happy with his effort, as I was. He's in play now. He has a race under his belt."
Trainer Graham Motion offered no obvious excuse for Irish War Cry suffering his first loss in four career starts after dispatching the Holy Bull field by 3 3/4 lengths.
"I wish he had maybe settled a little more off the pace perhaps, but I don't want to make excuses," Motion said. "He looked like he was going pretty nicely. I can't really say what happened, whether he bounced or not. He ran an awfully big race last time. He looks fine. My instincts and first reaction is that possibly I ran him back too quick. It's hard to know."
The Fountain of Youth was marred when 48-1 longshot Huracan Americo broke down on the far turn and was vanned off.
Sent off at 4-1 odds, Gunnevera returned $10.40, $4, and $3.20 across the board, as he improved his record to four wins from eight starts with $1,075,200 in earnings.
A return to Gulfstream Park for the $1 million Xpressbet Florida Derby (G1) in April is likely next for Gunnevera, who is out of the Unbridled mare Unbridled Rage. Bred and consigned by Brandywine Farm and Stephen Upchurch, Gunnevera was purchased by Sano as agent for $16,000 at the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale.
"This is my biggest win. I've been around horses since I was 5 years old," Peacock Racing Stables' Solomon Del-Valle said via a translator. "I've had as many as 40 horses in Venezuela. Antonio bought this horse for $16,000. Incredible. I love this horse. I get up every day at 4 a.m. to see the horse. I was 100% sure he would win today."
The Fountain of Youth highlighted Saturday's 13-race program that offered nine stakes, included eight graded-stakes. The program produced a record Fountain of Youth total handle of $26.6 million.