Saturday, Gulfstream Park, Race 11, Local Post Time 5:31pm ET
The G2 Fountain of Youth Stakes, 1 and 1/16 miles, Dirt, 3YO
By Alan Mann
The Grade 2 Fountain of Youth is the final prep for the Florida Derby, an actual prep (finally) for the Kentucky Derby. It will be run at a mile and a sixteenth with a short run to the first turn and a shortened stretch, both of which figure to be significant factors with an oversized and, for many, an over-ambitious field of 13 in search of sufficient points to qualify for the big race on the first Saturday in May. We think this is a race that is not as wide open as the number of starters would suggest, and that many of the entrants can be summarily dismissed, as connections overreach in search of a box seat at Churchill Downs.
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It seems fitting that Todd Pletcher would appear to hold the key to this fountain given the way he has dominated this meet. The Toddster sits firmly atop the trainer standings with 46 winners from 150 starters (from Nov 30); a winning percentage of 31%. He recently had a streak of at least one winner on 13 consecutive racing days on which he had a starter. He looks great with a tan.
He is also the beneficiary of the luck of the draw, with morning line favorite Commissioner (#1, 3-1) having been assigned the rail. So, while others outside of him are vying for position in what figures to be a mad dash to the first turn, jockey John Velazquez can merely stake out his position while saving ground. This son of A.P. Indy out of a Touch Gold mare (and a half-brother to the [sprint] graded stakes winner Laugh Track) has run exclusively around two turns, winning his last two races and improving his TFUS speed figure each time.
There's no doubt that the Fountain of Youth will present some new challenges for this colt in only his fourth career start. It's a far larger field than he's ever faced. He needs to build further on his speed figure progression. Pace Projector shows him significantly farther back than he's ever been (though we suspect he'll be closer than it suggests). So Commissioner will need some racing luck to find his way through traffic, especially if one assumes he'll be inside and amongst a crowd of horses. However, returning from a layoff of 128 days in his last effort, he rallied determinedly while splitting horses in the stretch--experience that should serve him well in this larger field--and held off Top Billing (#12), the second choice in the morning line at 7-2. While the PP lines may give the impression that the latter was gaining at the end, it was actually Commissioner who had edged away from the eighth pole, winning in easier fashion than the neck margin would suggest, and looking as if he wouldn't have been passed even in the proverbial "another time around." While we prefer to be more creative with our selections, we find it difficult to oppose this horse here, unless the tote board gives us no other choice.
Top Billing, in closing against what was a moderate and steady pace, actually earned, in defeat, a TimeformUS speed figure that was three points higher than that of Commissioner. This son of Curlin (out of a [turf] graded stakes winning A.P. Indy mare) then went on to improve his figure even further in a highly impressive allowance win over a pretty decent Pletcher horse in Surfing U S A. There are a lot of things to love about this colt, including his trainer, Shug McGaughey, and his stellar late pace rating of 112.
However, what we don't love is his #12 post position. Jockey Joel Rosario figures to take him to the back of the pack to save ground around the initial turn, and he will need some help from the racing gods to navigate his way around or through the pack. That makes him a shaky value proposition at his expected odds.
Looking at some of the other contenders:
We Miss Artie (#2, 8-1) is the "other Pletcher," and we recently documented how dangerous they can be. He's shown versatility, winning on turf and synth, from close up and coming from behind. Running without Lasix in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, his only two-turn dirt effort, he lost by only four lengths after being within a couple of lengths of the hot pace. As a son of Artie Schiller, his eventual home would seem to be turf, but it surely would be no shock to see him run well here.
Medal Count (#3, 15-1) is the most interesting of those listed at double-digit odds, and the one we like to spice up the exotics. Throw out his BC Juvenile race, in which he ran without Lasix, and you see a horse who has run respectably around two turns on all three surfaces while dealing with slow paces that compromised his closing style. Son of Dynaformer (with a good pedigree rating, for dirt routes, of 81) has a ways to go in the speed figure department, but has a favorable inside post, and could show up late should the expected quick pace materialize.
Wildcat Red (#4, 6-1) won the Hutcheson at seven furlongs and has been as far as a one-turn mile. His defeat, by a head, in the latter is the only blemish on his four-race career. But his pedigree rating of 66 for dirt routes may suggest that this son of the crack sprinter D'Wildcat is better suited for shorter.
General a Rod (#5, 5-1) is the horse that beat Wildcat Red in the mile test, and he also tries two turns for the first time. Since he's by the Haskell winner Roman Ruler, out of a mare by the distance influence Dynaformer, we like his chances of getting the distance. Whether he can avoid getting caught up in a fast pace and improve from his career-best TFUS speed figure of 91 remains to be seen. Given his connections--he's trained by the red-hot Michael Maker, who actually has a better winning percentage (33%) than Pletcher--his value prospects seem shaky.
C. Zee (#7, 12-1) Obscurely bred sprinter figures to add some heat to the early pace.
Almost Famous (#8, 10-1) shares the top spotlight and last-out TFUS speed figure of 102 with Top Billing. He is the projected leader on Pace Projector, which, given that it's labeled as a Fast Pace, may not be such a good thing. However, he does at least have two-turn experience, and a win at this distance at Churchill when he showed improved early speed with blinkers on. He got to the lead at the three-quarters mark in the hot-paced Holy Bull and faded to 4th. (And for that effort, his raw final-time figure was upgraded from 95 to 102.) He figures to have no easier time of it here.
Casiguapo (#6, 30-1 ML). This colt sold for just $4700 as a yearling, but earned that back many times over with a second place finish in the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot. It was his only two-turn effort, and he earned a competitive TFUS speed figure of 94 in the process. Son of Sightseeing has held his ground or passed horses in the stretch of each of his races. With the expected fast pace, a similar effort could earn him a minor award at long odds.
Selections: We'd play Commissioner to win at or above his morning line of 3-1. In any event, we'll look for some value in the exotics with him on top of We Miss Artie, Medal Count, and Top Billing (with a little Casiguapo sprinkled into the bottom of trifecta tickets as well).
Saturday, Fair Grounds, Race 11, Local Post Time 5:25pm CT
The G2 Risen Star Stakes, 1 and 1/16 miles, Dirt, 3YO
By Robert Finnegan
Derby fever makes its way to Fair Grounds today, where 14 three-year-olds will be running 1mile1/16 in the Grade 2 Risen Star. With the announcement that Bond Holder will scratch, we can add the also-eligible Emmett Park to the body of the race, which amounts to trading one closer for another in a race that has quite a bit of early speed in it.
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The TimeformUS Pace Projector designates the Risen Star as a "fast pace" race, and with 14 horses in a starting gate that is situated not all that far from the first turn, there seems to be a reasonable chance that the pace will prove to be destructive. According to the Pace Projector, Rise Up will be the early leader, with the maiden, Vigorish, and Albano tracking, followed closely by Hoppertunity (who might well have more speed than he has shown), Vicar's in Trouble, and Interchange. The others should be considered closers today.
The morning line favorite, at 5-2, is Vicar's in Trouble. Talented though he obviously is, we see him as vulnerable in this spot. For starters, on our speed figures, he is not the fastest horse in this race, nor is he the second-fastest or even the third-fastest. Rise Up, Hoppertunity, and Intense Holiday are all faster. Indeed, Quick Indian (20-1 ML) is just as fast. And according to our Race Ratings, Vicar's in Trouble does not exit the strongest races--that distinction belongs to Intense Holiday. Yes, Vicar's in Trouble looked great while dominating a Grade 3 in his last start, and he's lightly raced and eligible to improve today for his superb trainer and leading rider. But at 5-2 odds in a 14-horse field, a horse who needs to improve to win is not our idea of an enticing play--especially when he drew an awful post and may well find himself at odds with the pace of the race. So we are stamping Vicar's in Trouble as a strong contender but an underlay.
At morning line odds of 8-1, Intense Holiday is our selection in the Risen Star. He has the top lifetime speed figure in this field--a 102, which he ran as a two-year-old. As mentioned, he has been facing the best competition. He is proven at today's distance. His most recent speed figure, a 98, is highly competitive in here even before one factors in that it was earned with a difficult trip: a wide journey from a nasty post, with a nice middle-move and a strong 6F pace figure, belying thoughts that he might be developing "plodder" tendencies. And then there's his trainer. Todd Pletcher has been setting the house on fire with these stakes sojourns to Fair Grounds. Plus he has a circuit switch rating of 94, a 3YO-stakes rating of 92, a 3YO-route rating of 100, and of course an overall rating of 100. And with his closing style and powerful Late Pace rating of 95, Intense Holiday figures to be moved up considerably should the expected fast pace materialize. With money rider Mike Smith riding, at odds that figure to be somewhat better than decent, Intense Holiday seems like an attractive play in here.
As far as the rest of this sprawling field is concerned, in addition to Vicar's in Trouble (who we feel will be overbet), the horses we fear most are Rise Up, who has strong speed figures and projects for a ground-saving trip as he to tries to take this field wire to wire, and Bob Baffert's Hoppertunity, who has the best last-out speed figure in here, a number that he earned while saving all the ground when breaking his maiden (with an assist from his uncoupled barnmate, who was racing off the rail at an Hoppertune time, thus giving Hoppertunity room to shine). Longshots who interest us are Commanding Curve, who was visually impressive last year, Quick Indian, who has a Late Pace rating of 97, and Emmett Park, who has a puncher's chance off the surface switch should this race collapse in the final 1/8.
The play: Intense Holiday to win. Exacta boxes of Intense Holiday with Rise Up and Intense Holiday with Hoppertunity. Defensive exacta of Vicar's in Trouble over Intense Holiday. And the longshots underneath Intense Holiday in exotics.
Saturday, Fair Grounds, Race 10, Local Post Time 4:55pm CT
The G3 Fair Grounds Handicap, About 1 and 1/8 miles, Turf, 4YO+
By Jason Perlmutter
Saturday's Grade 3 Fair Grounds Handicap is proof that the Pace Projector need not predict an exceptionally fast or slow pace in order to provide horseplayers with an interesting perspective on how a race may shape up.
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What's interesting about this view is how spread out the field is, and yet the Pace Projector does not indicate a fast pace. This leads us to conclude that horses on or near the lead may end up with an ideal trip. The projected leader, #3 Ground Transport (6-1), has run once on synthetic (poorly) and once on turf (badly). He's also a tad slow relative to the other key contenders, and it's possible he will scratch out of this race and instead run on dirt in the Mineshaft Handicap. This would potentially improve the chances of the following two horses, projected to sit second and third early:
#2 Skyring (20-1 ML) is an intriguing longshot. Only ten months ago, he posted huge back-to-back speed figures of 118 and 117, the second one in upsetting the G2 Dixie ($50.40) at today's distance. Since that score in Baltimore, Skyring's form has been dreadful. He has finished no better than sixth in his last six races. But he has not been without reasonable excuses. His last two races have featured difficult post positions and less than optimal breaks. Prior to that, he was foolishly entered in the 12f Breeders' Cup Turf, and in the race before that, he faced Silver Max and Wise Dan in a monsoon on the Keeneland poly. If ever a horse could have used some time off, it was Skyring, and he finally was given 63 days of rest leading up to today's effort. While it's entirely possible this one is finished as a racehorse, he's an interesting key for those looking to hit a home run.
#5 Gentleman's Kitten (9-2 ML) figures to have a nice clean trip near the lead. The well-bred son of Kitten's Joy out of a Deputy Minister mare should have no problem with the 9f distance. He's coming off a huge career top figure of 113 in his first race for hot trainer Michael Maker, who has a 98 rating with horses coming in off good rest, in this case 44 days. We also like that Gentleman's Kitten posted his huge top on this quirky Fairgrounds circuit, and that it was only his eighth career start. He feels like the most likely winner and offers value at the morning line.
For us, it comes down to those two horses as potential keys. We think Gentleman's Kitten is more logical, but think he may get pounded at the windows (especially with his owners possibly emptying their capacious pockets on him), whereas Skyring is going to be very long odds and is a more speculative type of play. It depends on your philosophy as a horseplayer. Do you favor a 20-1 shot who should be 6-1, or a 7-2 shot who should be 2-1? As always, we recommend letting the odds help make the decision for you.
Of the others, #4 Daddy Nose Best, the 5-2 ML favorite, has won five out of his last six races, but his figures haven't been tremendously fast relative to the field, and he carries a lot of weight in here. Let's try to beat him. #8 Slip and Drive should be forwardly placed and has some fast figures (a 111 and 112) in recent starts. #9 Unitarian looks like a healthy, improving four-year-old and we don't want to lose to Todd Pletcher and Mike Smith at anywhere near the 5-1 morning line.
The Wager: #5 Gentleman's Kitten to win (consider #2 Skyring as alternative or a dutch play if the odds dictate). Use #2 Skyring and #5 Gentleman's Kitten in multi race wagers. Exacta Part Wheel: Skyring and Gentleman's Kitten with those two and Slip and Drive and Unitarian, pressing up on the Skyring / Gentleman's Kitten exacta box, and double-keying Skyring and Gentleman's Kitten in all positions in the trifecta with the all button in the other slot.