Run at 1 1/16 miles, Saturday's $400,000 Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park is the final major stepping stone to the $1 million Xpressbet.com Florida Derby on April 1. The Fountain of Youth offers points to the first four finishers on a 50-20-10-5 scale as a qualifying race for the May 6 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.
Since the race began in 1945, five horses who ran in Fountain of Youth have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby, most recently Orb in 2013.
The last several years the Fountain of Youth has been a coming out party for many horses. In fact, five of the last nine race winners won a mere Gulfstream Park allowance race in their start prior, and another from that group, 2009 winner Quality Road, ran second in a Gulfstream allowance. This year, Beasley enters the Fountain of Youth off a runner-up finish in a 1 1/16-mile allowance, while Lookin for Eight won a seven-furlong maiden at Gulfstream.
Made You Look’s trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez have both enjoyed much success in the Fountain of Youth. Pletcher has won three of the last ten editions, while Velazquez has crossed the line first four times during that span.
Eleven horses has been entered for this year’s edition of the Fountain of Youth, including three of the top four finishers from the locally run Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes – race winner Irish War Cry, runner-up Gunnevera, and Talk Logistics, who finished fourth.
Here are five questions that must be answered about the race.
1. How good is Irish War Cry?
With questions marks now floating over the heads of McCraken and Classic Empire, Irish War Cry has become my de facto number one-rated Kentucky Derby contender. In what was his first two-turn try, the son of Curlin set a controlled pace in the Holy Bull while in hand, found another gear, won under a mild hand ride and galloped out best. It was a visually impressive effort, and trainer Graham Motion, who won the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom, has raved about the colt’s recent training.
Joe's answer: Irish War Cry has the potential to be very good. There is stamina in the pedigree and turf on the dam’s side, which always seems to play well at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. With only three previous starts under his girth, the Fountain of Youth should tell us a lot more about him.
2. How well will Practical Joke perform off the bench?
Chad Brown won his first Eclipse Award as the outstanding trainer of 2016, but his reputation tilts towards turf. He did run two horses in last year’s Run for the Roses, but neither My Man Sam or Shagaf made an impact. Normandy Invasion, his only other Kentucky Derby starter, looked like a winner at the top of the stretch in 2013, only to falter to fourth. Practical Joke enjoyed a stellar 2-year-old season, winning a pair of grade one races around one turn before finishing a well-beaten third in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Brown could have chosen to run against El Areeb in the Gotham Stakes on Saturday, but the depth of the Fountain of Youth will provide a much better gauge.
Joe's answer: The return works have been stellar and I expect his 2-year-old professionalism to carry over into this season. The fact that Brown stays in Florida signals confidence. His pedigree is that of a miler, so 1 1/16 miles at Gulfstream should be perfect. He should run huge on Saturday, but stretching out to ten furlongs in the Derby could get dicey.
3. Who is the best of the Todd Pletcher-trained 3-year-olds?
With all of the live wires in his barn, it’s somewhat puzzling that seven-time Eclipse Award winning trainer Todd Pletcher elected to run only Made You Look, a horse who has never started on dirt in six career runs, in the Fountain of Youth. A two-time graded stakes winner on turf, he’s by More Than Ready and the first foal to race out of Unbridled's Song mare Night and Day, a daughter of Hall of Fame champion Serena's Song, who has been a solid producer on all surfaces. Based on the pedigree and a recent bullet work at Palm Beach Downs, it’s worth taking a shot on dirt.
Joe’s Answer: Pletcher’s One Liner burst onto the scene by winning the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park on Feb. 20. His next two best horses in my book are recent allowance winner Battalion Runner and Always Dreaming, who is actually entered in Saturday’s first race at Gulfstream, a nine-furlong first-level optional claiming allowance. Others to keep an eye on in no particular order include: the undefeated Action Everyday, who adds blinkers for Saturday’s Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct; Malagacy, who won his first two starts by 22 combined lengths; Tapwrit, runner-up to McCraken in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs; Faja, who won his lone start over a one-turn Gulfstream mile in December by open lengths; OBS Championship Stakes winner Master Plan; the stakes-winning Sonic Mule, third in the Swale Stakes at Gulfstream in his last start; Grade 3 stakes winner Theory; and the speedy Syndergaard, who lost by a nose in the Champagne Stakes to Practical Joke last fall and is just now starting to gear up for his sophomore campaign.
Pletcher, who won the Run for the Roses with Super Saver in 2010, is just 1 for 45 in the Kentucky Derby and for him, the race isn’t nearly the priority it is for most trainers. That being said, he ran five horses in the 2013 edition, and if the chips fall right, he could approach that number again this year.
4. Can an unknown commodity become a household name in this year’s Fountain of Youth?
Joe’s answer: There are two potential longshots worth considering – the abovementioned Lookin for Eight and Beasley. A distant second behind the aforementioned Battalion Runner in his debut, Lookin for Eight returned to score a visually impressive win of his own. Transferred to Mark Casse following that score, he tries two turns for the first time in what will be his stakes debut. By Lookin At Lucky out of a Mineshaft mare, the route pedigree is there, but drawing the extreme outside post 11 makes a difficult task even tougher.
Beasley has run huge in all three of his career starts, most recently losing a tough decision to…Battalion Runner. He will be forwardly placed behind likely pacesetters Takaful and Three Rules and should fall into a dream trip.
5. Who wins the Fountain of Youth and why?
With Takaful and Three Rules in the race, the Fountain of Youth pace should surely be honest, possibly even fast. Sure, Irish War Cry won the Holy Bull on the lead, but the way he rates, he certainly doesn’t need to be there. Hot fractions would surely help the chances of Holy Bull runner-up Gunnevera, who may have made that race even closer if not for a compromised trip. Practical Joke is the wild card. Exactly where he fits in with this crop remains to be seen, but it’s tough to argue his previous consistency.
Joe's Fountain of Youth picks: 1. Irish War Cry 2. Gunnevera 3. Practical Joke 4. Lookin for Eight