Welcome to another edition of America’s Best Racing’s Main Track.
Each week in this space we spotlight the most meaningful story of the past seven days, detailing a story that stands out because of its importance or perhaps the emotional response it generates.
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This week’s story details some unexpected upheaval on the road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.
For the last five years the favorite has won the Kentucky Derby, but on Saturday, the road to Louisville on the first Saturday in May became bumpy for the horse who was a popular favorite to win the Derby.
Good Magic, last year’s 2-year-old champion and winner of the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, had been the top-ranked horse in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association 3-year-old poll since voting started in late January. But when the son of Curlin started his 3-year-old campaign in Saturday’s Fountain of Youth Stakes, he finished third as a 3-5 favorite, 4 ½ lengths behind front-running Promises Fulfilled.
“I think (the 3-year-old picture) is muddy water right now but it’ll start clearing itself up,” said Dale Romans, who trains Promises Fulfilled, an 18-1 longshot who was also making his 3-year-old debut. “This round of preps and the next round are the two where they all come together. Right now there’s nobody just running away from the crop and that makes it exciting.”
Exciting indeed, and confusing, too.
For starters, it raises the question of how good Promises Fulfilled is. He has some class and substance as reflected in a third-place finish behind Enticed last year in the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs. Promises Fulfilled led at the eighth pole in that Grade 2 stakes before weakening, something that didn’t happen at Gulfstream when he ran his record to three wins in four starts.
Whether he’ll be able to extend that speed over a mile and a quarter on May 5 is the burning question about him.
“I thought that he could open up, and he did. It was a bunch of fast horses, but a lot of times that speed doesn’t materialize and coming from the outside it kind of pressed our hand,” said Romans, whose horse broke from post nine in the field of nine. “They let him go (a half-mile in 48.39 seconds) with his ears up and I knew it was going to take a heck of a horse to pass him at that point.”
Neither runner-up Strike Power, who finished 2 ¼ lengths behind, nor Good Magic was that “heck of a horse” Saturday, but counting out Good Magic certainly seems a bit premature.
Clearly the Fountain of the Youth was treated as a prep, rather than a prime objective, and his effort leaves trainer Chad Brown plenty of room to have ready for a peak effort.
Even before the race, Brown told BloodHorse Daily in its Feb. 24 edition, “I’m taking the approach that I understand what’s on the line with this horse being one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby, but that’s not going to change anything I do. I’m going to approach it like any race. My goal is to get him to run a lifetime best figure going a mile-and-a-quarter on the first Saturday in May. It doesn’t matter what the name of the race is. I’m working backward from that day, trying my best to have the horse in a position to run a new top that day.”
His connections also told BloodHorse that they were uncertain if Good Magic would be 100 percent for the Fountain of the Youth, preferring to give the colt more time off than usual following his Juvenile win before starting his 3-year-old season.
The Fountain of Youth surely played out that way as Good Magic was not pushed by jockey Jose Ortiz to chase Promises Fulfilled through those slow early fractions and launched only a mild bid on the turn before racing evenly in the stretch. He certainly looked like a horse who needed the race and was prepping for bigger and better things in the future.
Now with that race under his belt, Good Magic, who came out of his seasonal debut “a little tired” according to Brown, figures to face a bigger and more telling test in his next start. His connections told BloodHorse before the Fountain of Youth that they are leaning toward the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland as that final Derby prep and little seems to have changed since then.
In that next race, wherever it happens, Brown and co-owners Barbara Banke of Stonestreet Stables and Bob Edwards of e Five Racing Thoroughbreds will look for the necessary improvement in Good Magic to signal he will indeed be in peak form on the first Saturday in May.
Whether they get it or not, the Fountain of Youth, and possibly the upcoming San Felipe at Santa Anita Park, could be matched against an intriguing background.
In the San Felipe, the new No. 1-ranked 3-year-old in the NTRA media poll, Bolt d’Oro, will make his eagerly awaited 2018 debut and will have to face a rather formidable foe in the Bob Baffert-trained McKinzie. If Bolt d’Oro also goes down to defeat in his 2018 debut it will be framed against a statistic that dates back to 2012.
While the betting favorite has won the last five runnings of the run for the roses, in the last six editions of the race, the Kentucky Derby has been captured by a horse who was undefeated at age 3. Starting with I’ll Have Another in 2012 and continuing through Always Dreaming last year, Derby winners are combined 15-0 in their 3-year-old races prior to the run for roses.
Certainly, trends like that are subjective to change direction at a moment’s notice, yet in an era of a point system that determines starters in the Kentucky Derby, it paints a picture of the “hot” horse being the horse to beat at Churchill Downs.
Reinforcing that notion, in the last 12 editions of the Kentucky Derby, nine of the 12 winners of the 10-furlong classic won their last race before the run for the roses.
Whether those stats will continue to trend upward will be decided on May 5, but for now, as preps like the Fountain of Youth and San Felipe will shape the outlook for the Kentucky Derby, they also signal that some exciting races are on the horizon and the annual debate about who will win the run for the roses will be as lively, tumultuous and heated as ever.
The Fountain of Youth certainly illustrated that.
The Also-Eligible List
Here are some of the other noteworthy stories that made for a lively week in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry: