Saturday's Fountain of Youth turned out to be a thriller, with a pair of talented three-year-olds, Orb and Violence, battling to the wire at Gulfstream Park, but any post-race excitement proved short-lived after it was announced that Violence had sustained a career-ending injury. He will be okay, with a future at stud, but it served as another brutal example of the highs and lows in horse racing.
The Risen Star at Fair Grounds offered up its own drama, with the top five finishers separated by only 1 1/2 lengths on the wire, but 135-1 upset winner I've Struck a Nerve did little to flatter the Kentucky Derby prospects of the next four finishers -- Code West, Palace Malice, Oxbow and Normandy Invasion. The vanquished can't be dismissed from consideration, but the immediate result was a head-scratcher.
The first leg in the championship portion of the new "Road to the Kentucky Derby" scoring system began last weekend, awarding points on a 50-20-10-5 scale to the first four finishers, and it continues this Saturday with the Gotham Stakes. The 1 1/16-mile test over Aqueduct's inner track will feature the 2013 bow of Remsen winner Overanalyze, whose rivals include unbeaten Jerome winner Vyjack.
This weekend also marks the second pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, which runs Friday-Sunday.
Fountain of Youth
Orb appeared to be facing a steep task over the speed-favoring track at Gulfstream, which features a short stretch run at the 1 1/16-mile distance, but he received the ideal set-up for his ferocious finishing kick, with 3-5 favorite Violence chasing speedball Majestic Hussar through splits of :23, :45 2/5 and 1:08 4/5. Orb circled rivals on the far turn and collared Violence in deep stretch, edging his way to a half-length decision.
The runner-up surged to a clear advantage turning for home and proved game when challenged, but the fast fractions eventually took their toll. It was still a very encouraging performance, one which Violence figured to keep moving forward from, and his injury came as a painful blow to the Todd Pletcher barn. The trainer possesses incredible depth this year, but Violence will be missed.
Orb exited his stakes debut Saturday in high standing for the Kentucky Derby. A maiden winner in his juvenile finale, he opened his three-year-old season with a nice one-length allowance score at nine furlongs on January 26, but quality concerns remained given the 89 BRIS Speed rating he received. That low number was mostly due to a slow pace, but it represented a career-best for Orb in his fifth career start.
He broke through in the Fountain of Youth, registering a commendable 102 BRIS Speed, and Orb rates as a rapidly-improving type for trainer Shug McGaughey. The Triple Crown is seldom a focus for the Hall of Fame trainer, whose prominent stable is generally associated with late-developing horses, but he has an exciting prospect to guide this year in Orb. McGaughey is winless in six previous Derby attempts, with runner-up Easy Goer providing his best finish in 1989, and is poised to return for the first time since a 10th-place effort by Saarland in 2002.
Orb is virtually guaranteed a spot in the Derby field with 50 points, so the pressure is off in his final prep, and the 1 1/4-mile race could set up perfectly if the late runner is able to navigate his way through traffic. Distance appears of no concern for the well-bred son of the A.P. Indy sire Malibu Moon; Orb hails from the mare Lady Liberty, a daughter of 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled who won at distances up to 1 1/2 miles, and this is the female family of Coronado's Quest, Private Terms and the immortal Ruffian.
McGaughey suggested this week that Orb would likely remain at Gulfstream for the March 30 Florida Derby, which makes sense given that John Velazquez should be able to keep the mount. The jockey is also committed to Verrazano, who likely will be favored a week later in the Wood Memorial if he wins the March 9 Tampa Bay Derby as expected, and Velazquez could have a difficult decision to make after the final round of preps.
I've Struck a Nerve looked overmatched entering the Risen Star. His only competitive efforts had come at six furlongs, including a runner-up in the December 22 Sugar Bowl at Fair Grounds, and he showed little when finishing fourth, more than 13 lengths behind the winning Oxbow, in the January 19 Lecomte.
But, as Hall of Fame conditioner and four-time Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas likes to say, "You can't win it if you're not in it" and I've Struck a Nerve rewarded his connections' decision to enter, rallying wide into the stretch before getting up late to score by a nose.
He paid $272.40 to win and $110.60 to place.
Give trainer Keith Desormeaux credit and James Graham excelled while picking up the mount, but I won't put much stock into the winner. A son of speed sire Yankee Gentleman, I've Struck a Nerve may have been pushing the limits of his effectiveness at Saturday's 1 1/16-mile trip and needs to prove that his massive upset wasn't an aberration.
Runner-up Code West just missed in the photo finish, turning in a respectable effort in his first start versus stakes foes. He pressed pacesetter Proud Strike during the early stages, was confronted and passed by Oxbow rounding the far turn, and despite appearing to be in serious trouble in upper stretch, continued to slug it out all the way to wire, re-rallying in the final sixteenth of a mile. I thought Code West may be a race or two away from a top showing at this level before the Risen Star and expect further improvement down the road.
The Bob Baffert-trained colt needed four starts before breaking his maiden in a slow time against suspect rivals at Santa Anita in late October. Code West moved forward off of that effort when opening 2013 with a runner-up to stablemate Super Ninety Nine in a one-mile allowance on January 31, generating a career-best 99 BRIS Speed rating, and equaled that figure while getting blinkers off in the Risen Star. The son of Lemon Drop Kid has been a bit one-paced in all his starts, but Code West owns tactical speed and is bred to relish longer distances. The Risen Star should provide him valuable seasoning.
Palace Malice was making his two-turn bow, and only his third career outing, and I was surprised to see him near the back during the opening stages given his BRIS Early Pace numbers. The Pletcher trainee began passing rivals on the far turn and accelerated into contention in midstretch, threatening to run past his rivals while four wide, and even though his momentum stalled slightly late, Palace Malice wound up missing by only a half-length. The Curlin colt is bred to improve with maturity and added distance, and the Risen Star served as a good effort to build upon.
Oxbow sped away from the start of the Lecomte, running his rivals into the ground en route to an 11 1/2-length decision, but he changed tactics in the Risen Star and was caught five wide into the first turn from post 10, closely stalking the front runners beneath Jon Court. He loomed a menacing figure when advancing to challenge on the far turn and entered the stretch drive as the one to catch, and even though he weakened late, the Lukas runner never quit trying, missing the show by a nose. This race could toughen up the son of Awesome Again for next time.
Normandy Invasion was never a serious factor as the 3-2 favorite following a rough trip, bobbling at the start and traveling wide the entire way, and that trouble likely compromised his chances. But there were some drawbacks to note from a disheartening performance. He was side-by-side with the eventual winner at the top of the stretch and while that rival displayed a closing kick to catch the leaders and forge by, Normandy Invasion never threatened, passing tiring opponents in the final furlong to be an inconsequential fifth.
It would be premature to give up on Normandy Invasion -- this was just the starting point of his three-year-old campaign and he displayed such promise last fall, breaking his maiden by 9 1/4 lengths before recording an excellent nose second in the Remsen (104 BRIS Speed rating in the latter) -- but he finds himself in a precarious position going forward, with only four points to his credit, after whiffing in the Risen Star.
That puts a lot of pressure on Normandy Invasion, as well as trainer Chad Brown, in the April 6 Wood Memorial, where the late runner will need a much-improved performance to challenge against what could be a deep cast of rivals. I wouldn't put a massive rebound past him, but Normandy Invasion did little Saturday to justify his standing as a leading Kentucky Derby contender.
I am seeking value in the Future Wager and made four plays in Pool 1 -- Code West (56-1), Dynamic Sky (54-1), Overanalyze (33-1) and Oxbow (26-1). In Pool 2 this weekend, I will avoid any horses at 15-1 or lower when making my wagers on Sunday.
That probably eliminates a number of top prospects, including Flashback, Itsmyluckyday, Orb and Verrazano, from consideration, but Revolutionary appears likely to drift up from 12-1 morning line into a suitable price range.
Along with Revolutionary, I plan to support Delhomme (50-1) and Palace Malice (30-1) in Pool 2.