As I wrote in my preview of Sunday's Fountain of Youth Stakes, in my opinion the Triple Crown season officially starts this weekend. Between Saturday's Risen Star from Fair Grounds, which features the highly-touted El Padrino, and Sunday's Fountain of Youth, a race that pits current Derby favorite Union Rags against a pair of undefeated Todd Pletcher stars, it should give us a very good read on who the standouts are going into the final two months. Yes it's only late February, but this is a very important weekend.
Throw in the fact that a pair of champions--Amazombie and Royal Delta--are making their season debuts in very intriguing races, and we have ourselves a tremendous weekend of racing. I'm anxious to see what people think. Let's get started.
Fountain of Youth
I've got to go with Pletcher's Discreet Dancer in the spot. I'm not sure how far this colt can run, but a second turn and an extra-sixteenth won't be an issue for him. A short run into the first turn should give the speedy colt an advantage at the start, and a short stretch run should also help his cause. And he is almost guaranteed to go off as the third choice (maybe 7-2), which is attractive.
Like everyone, I'm looking forward to seeing Union Rags in his debut. How sharp will he be in his return and how will he handle two top horses that are undefeated over the course? I'll say one thing, if he defeats Algorithms and Discreet Dancer under these circumstances, we will know the colt is the real deal. I'm looking forward to finding out, though I'm expecting his better race to come in the Florida Derby.
If a price horse hit the board, I would expect it to be Casual Trick. If you toss his Jan. 29 optional claimer over an off track, he figures to have a chance to at least hit the board in here. The colt has been working up a storm at Palm Meadows and if the pace falls apart he could pick up some of the pieces.
Again Pletcher takes the spotlight with El Padrino, a colt many believe gives him his best chance at Derby glory this year. The Pulpit colt showed he is built for two turns in Jan. 29 optional claiming win at Gulfstream. This race is at the same 1 1/16-mile distance, which probably isn't ideal for him--he wants more ground--but he's too talented and sharp to think he won't be a factor here. He gets an ideal post near the outside so he can take up a stalking position under Castellano.
The top three from the Lecomte return and all of them can make a case. The second- and third-place finishers, Z Dager and Shared Property, had the much tougher trips in that race and I lean towards either of them over the winner, Mr. Bowling. But I do like the other half of the Jones entry, Mark Valeski, so from a betting perspective I may have to use him anyway. Mark Valeski is stretching out for the first time after two sprint wins over the track. From what I've been told, he is the better Derby prospect of Jones' pair.
Z Dager is one I like and think will keep improving off his stakes debut. While I won't pick him over El Padrino here, I'll use him, and I hope he runs well enough to pick up some earnings and move on to the Louisiana Derby.
The two price horses I would use to round out exotics are Afford and Optimizer. Afford has also showed an affinity for the track and the Street Sense colt looks like extra ground will be to his benefit as well. With the heady Shan Bridgmohan carving out a decent trip for him, I can see him being a factor at the end. Optimizer, on paper, looks like he is regressing after a good summer that netted him decent graded earnings. His Smarty Jones effort was not encouraging, but his works are. He might be coming for a late run at a big price to get into the money.
It's between champion Amazombie and the brilliant The Factor right? Probably, as sharp as these two are right now. The Factor is 3-for-3 at seven furlongs, appears to be lone speed, and is coming off a devastating win in the Malibu. Amazombie, according to Bill Spawr and Mike Smith, is even better than he was when he won the BC Sprint in November. There is no reason to think he won't run big here; he loves the track.
All that being said, I'll take a chance at beating both with Rothko. Yes, he was beaten three lengths by The Factor in the Malibu. But he drew inside of him that day and was stuck down near the rail for most of his trip, including a questionable decision by Nakatani to steer him back toward the rail in the stretch when he could have been taken outside. Now he draws outside of The Factor and should have a better angle at his target. The improving 4-year-old colt has received a better Bris speed number in each of his last five starts and now he gets Joel Rosario. He'll need to be even better to beat these two studs, but a win/place bet looks intriguing at a good price.
Royal Delta was brilliant at the end of last year and is on her way to taking on the best in the world in the Dubai World Cup next month. But a win in this race in not the goal for Bill Mott, and 1 1/16 miles into a short stretch in not ideal for her. Mott won't have her cranked. If she is good enough to win at low odds, then so be it. But for me she is a logical play against.
Awesome Maria was on her way to having a championship-type campaign when she was injured last summer. She was undefeated in four starts including the grade I Ogden Phipps. Two of the wins came over this track. She has been working bullets for Pletcher, who always has horses sharp off layoffs. She will be near the front at a distance that is perfect for her. She should be tough to handle here.
I also like Groupie Doll, an improving filly who was beaten less than a length by speedy colt Boys At Tosconova in her season debut Jan. 27 at Gulfstream, and decisively won an optional claimer at the track in December. If you throw out her turf race in November, Groupie Doll has been as consistent as can be since last summer, including a group III win and narrow beat in the grade II Raven Run at Keeneland. She will get her biggest class test here by far, but maybe, just maybe, she is in good enough to pull off the upset, or at least get second at a decent price.
Rachel Alexandra--Summer Applause to turn the tables on Believe You Can
7th race at Gulfstream Saturday--A 3-year-old optional claimer on turf, I like Our Entourage to handle a large field on turf. Look for him to show up in the Wood Memorial next.
Who do you like?
Again, as a reminder, our Triple Crown Preview is now on sale. It's full of good information on the top 40 contenders.