Run at 1 1/16 miles, Saturday's $400,000 Grade 2 Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park is the final major steppingstone to the Xpressbet.com Florida Derby on March 31. It is worth 50-20-10-5 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.
In the last 27 years, six horses who ran in Fountain of Youth have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby, most recently race winner Orb in 2013.
The Fountain of Youth often serves as a coming out party for an emerging 3-year-old contender. Four of the last eight race winners won a Gulfstream Park maiden or allowance race in their start prior. He Takes Charge, Storm Runner and Machismo all fit that profile this year.
Trainer Todd Pletcher (Marconi) has won three of last 11 editions of the Fountain of Youth (2015 with Itsaknockout, 2010 with Eskendereya, and 2007 with Scat Daddy).
The Fountain of Youth marks the return of Good Magic, who won the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile as a maiden in his final start of 2017.
Here are five questions that must be answered about the race:
1. Will Good Magic pick up right where he left off as a 2-year-old?
Joe’s answer: Purchased for $1 million as a Keeneland September yearling, Good Magic was the talk of the Saratoga backstretch before he even made a start last summer.
Second in a debut sprint, he would return to just miss to the deep-closing Firenze Fire over the one-turn Belmont mile in the Champagne Stakes.
The presence of Bolt d’Oro allowed him to be sent off at overlay odds of 11.50-1 in the Breeders’ Cup, and he drew off like a good horse.
With 24 Kentucky Derby points already in the bank, there was no sense of urgency to get Good Magic cranked up quickly. Most years, 30 points earns you a run at the roses, so even a third-place finish in the Fountain of Youth would put Good Magic in a strong position with six weeks of preps still to come.
His Eclipse Award-winning trainer for the past two years, Chad Brown, is winless from just four starts in the Kentucky Derby. You know he’ll like nothing better than to shake his reputation as a “turf trainer,” and a signature win the first Saturday in May would help him do just that.
Last year, it was Practical Joke who came off the bench in the Fountain of Youth for Mr. Chad. He ran second to Gunnevera, and was later fifth in the Kentucky Derby before winning a pair of graded stakes later in the year.
Good Magic is a better Kentucky Derby prospect than Practical Joke was. He progressed perfectly as a 2-year-old and I love the way he’s trained leading up to the sophomore debut. Remember, he hasn’t run in 3 ½ months, he doesn’t need to win this, and the price is going to be short. That being said, he might just be better than these.
2. Is Free Drop Billy the best of the Dale Romans 3-year-olds? (Note: Free Drop Billy was scratched on Saturday morning.)
Joe’s answer: Romans is winless from eight starts (with two thirds) in the Kentucky Derby and he’s been represented in seven of the last eight years. With quite a few fringe players this spring, if he plays his cards right and they step up, he might be able to get a horse like Tiz Mischief, Storm Runner, Promises Fulfilled or Seven Trumpets into the Kentucky Derby starting gate… but Free Drop Billy might be his only legitimate shot to win it.
By 2012 Fountain of Youth winner Union Rags, who trained on to win the Belmont Stakes at 12 furlongs, Free Drop Billy is a half-brother to $800,000-earning turf marathoner Hawkbill, and there is also quite a bit of stamina on the dam’s side of the family.
“Billy” runs like a horse who will get better with added distance. His Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity win at Keeneland was impressive, his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile performance was a toss-out (he was stuck on the dead rail) and his recent second behind the super-impressive Audible in the Holy Bull Stakes was even better than it looked. In tight on the first turn, he was forced to steady. On the second bend, he loomed up boldly three-wide while in hand, but simply couldn’t go with the ground-attacking winner.
An under-the-radar Romans’ trainee I kind of like is King Zachary. He’s run deceivingly well in a pair of seven-furlong races, but by Curlin out of a Giant’s Causeway mare, he too was bred to do his best work over a distance of ground.
3. Will Strike Power stretch out his speed successfully?
Joe’s answer: By winning at first asking over 5 ½ furlongs on Dec. 23, Strike Power earned a massive speed figure in the process, and he backed it up with a victory in the seven-furlong Swale Stakes at Gulfstream.
Although he certainly runs like a dirt sprinter, his pedigree actually tilts towards two-turns on turf. His dam earned $230,000 routing on the grass and she’s a half-brother to $720K turf/synthetics specialist Adriano.
Able to get away with moderate fractions in the Swale, he finished on the wrong lead in the stretch and I did not like the way he galloped out AT ALL.
Could he possibly steal the Fountain of Youth if the fractions are slow and the track favors speed? Sure he can, but if that happens, I will almost certainly look at it like a false race moving forward.
4. Are there any under-the-radar contenders?
Joe’s answer: I honestly don’t think so. Somebody had to be second in the Swale, and it happened to be Gotta Go after he passed tired horses. Marconi was a no-excuse third in the Withers Stakes. Those are two horses others might like that I’m against.
If a horse is to step up, I think the best candidate might be He Takes Charge, who has shown slow but steady improvement with every run for Mark Casse. The dam is a half-sibling to $3.9-million earner Will Take Charge and million-dollar banker Take Charge Indy and his granddam (maternal grandmother) is the multiple graded stakes winner Take Charge Lady.
5. Who wins the Fountain of Youth and why?
Joe’s answer: To me this is a toss-up between Good Magic and Free Drop Billy. The former might be the better horse, and even off the layoff he’s probably sharper at 1 1/16 miles. The latter has the fitness edge, he should have an honest pace to run at, and the price will be slightly better.
Joe's Fountain of Youth picks: 1. Free Drop Billy 2. Good Magic 3. He Takes Charge 4. Strike Power