Wildcat Red and Intense Holiday guaranteed themselves a spot in the Kentucky Derby, earning 50 points for their respective wins in the Fountain of Youth and Risen Star, and the contrast between races was extreme.
Wildcat Red benefited from a speed-friendly track at Gulfstream Park, dueling throughout with General a Rod before prevailing by a nose, while Intense Holiday took advantage of the long stretch at Fair Grounds, rallying to catch lone speed Albano in the final strides.
Gulfstream Park also featured a salty allowance field on the Fountain of Youth undercard that yielded at least three hopefuls for the Kentucky Derby.
The Road to the Kentucky Derby returns to the Aqueduct this Saturday for the Gotham, which offers points on a 50-20-10-5 scale to its top four finishers, and the top two from the February 1 Withers, Samraat and Uncle Sigh, will renew their rivalry. Todd Pletcher is responsible for three of the 11 entrants including Harpoon, who exits a nose runner-up in the Sam F. Davis.
Fountain of Youth
Wildcat Red and General a Rod went after it in a fierce duel and no one should question their moxie. They hooked up in a similar fashion on January 1, battling on the front end in the one-turn Gulfstream Park Derby before being separated by a head on the wire, and Wildcat Red was able to exact a measure of revenge after coming up a little short in their prior engagement.
They both received a 100 BRIS Speed rating in the Fountain of Youth -- the top number from a Kentucky Derby prep race this year -- but I won't put too much stock into their performances given the way the track was playing.
The speed-biased surface proved to be an enormous advantage as Wildcat Red and General a Rod locked horns from the start, contesting fast splits of :23, :46 1/5 and 1:10 with no adverse effects as they maintained a cushion through the short stretch run (Gulfstream uses the first finish line in 1 1/16-mile races). They could get another biased track in the March 29 Florida Derby that helps their chances, but longer distances represent a severe challenge. I can't envision either being a legitimate contender at 1 1/4 miles this spring.
Top Billing couldn't catch the top two, but a third-place finish doesn't hurt his Kentucky Derby chances. Out of an A.P. Indy mare, the well-bred Curlin colt appears well-suited for 1 1/4 miles -- it's just a matter of ability. And I thought the Fountain of Youth was a perfect race for him to build upon.
Making his stakes debut and fourth career start for trainer Shug McGaughey, the chestnut was last of 12 after the opening quarter-mile. Top Billing launched an eye-catching move on the far turn and continued to make up ground in the stretch before coming up two lengths short, netting a career-best 98 BRIS Speed while nearly five lengths clear of fourth.
Top Billing weaved his way adeptly through traffic in a large field, netting his fourth consecutive triple-digit BRIS Late Pace rating, and the powerful late runner has a boatload of speed-based horses pointing toward this year's Kentucky Derby. He just needs to keep moving forward in his final prep race.
Intense Holiday shipped from South Florida to Fair Grounds and delivered the performance of his career in the Risen Star, making a serious impact for the first time since breaking his maiden five starts previously. The Pletcher charge rated in midpack during the opening stages and kicked it into high gear upon reaching the stretch drive, closing with a rush in the final furlong.
A non-threatening third behind Cairo Prince in the January 25 Holy Bull, Intense Holiday was fortunate to get away from Gulfstream Park with his running style. He picked up the services of Mike Smith and registered a career-best 99 Speed rating in the Risen Star, earning a 108 Late Pace rating as well after the determined finish.
The Risen Star appeared to feature plenty of pace on paper but didn't develop that way. Albano surprisingly got away with moderate factions of :24 1/5. :48 and 1:13 while unopposed on the lead, and it turned out to be a tough beat for the half-brother to Grade 2 winner Mark Valeski. Jockey Kerwin Clark expressed his disappointment after losing by a nose aboard the Larry Jones-trained colt.
"I thought I was home at the sixteenths (pole)," Clark said. "(Albano) was still running. I looked over inside the eighth pole and didn't see anyone coming. I can't believe that horse came and got us, to be honest, because my horse never stopped one bit."
It was a 5 1/2-length gap between second and third. Abano can't be counted out from consideration in the 1 1/8-mile Louisiana Derby on March 29, but he probably doesn't want any part of classic distances with his breeding.
A son of Harlan's Holiday, Intense Holiday has the breeding on both sides for the Kentucky Derby and established himself as a viable contender in the Risen Star. The grinder still has something to prove from a class standpoint, but he can continue to enhance his credentials in the Louisiana Derby.
After overcoming a slow start in an impressive maiden victory, Constitution continued to perform like a colt with a bright future on the Fountain of Youth undercard, posting a 3 1/4-length victory over a deep group of allowance challengers at 1 1/16 miles.
Javier Castellano put the Pletcher colt on the best part of the track -- the front end -- and Constitution was never seriously threatened leading wire to wire in his two-turn debut, netting a 98 Speed rating. The talented son of Tapit still has enough time to receive two stakes starts prior to the Kentucky Derby, but we'll see what happens.
Constitution, who didn't make his career debut until January 11, lacks seasoning and will be attempting to buck a significant trend -- Apollo is the last unraced two-year-old to win the Kentucky Derby in 1882.
Last year, Verrazano didn't make his career debut until January and raced four times, including two stakes attempts, before an unplaced effort as one of the favorites at Churchill Downs. But the same strategy nearly paid off the year before with Bodemeister, who finished second to I'll Have Another.
Constitution will have no room for error if his connections put all their eggs in one basket, trying to gain the necessary points for the Kentucky Derby in a single prep race. He figures to take plenty of action regardless.
Tonalist, who rallied from off the pace in his first two starts, was taken out of his element last Saturday, forced to chase Constitution in second, and came under a full drive midway on the far turn as jockey Joe Bravo tried to reel in the loose-on-the-lead leader. The strategy didn't work, but the Christophe Clement runner kept trying hard all the way to the wire, finishing 2 1/4 lengths clear of third.
I was impressed by his four-length maiden win going nine furlongs earlier in the meet and still hold Tonalist in high regard -- the Tapit colt is out of a Pleasant Colony mare and looks like a natural for longer distances. He should be an extremely live contender in his stakes debut.
Mexikoma is another one to watch from this race. A Delaware Park maiden winner two starts previously, the Rick Mettee-conditioned colt was making his first appearance since an eighth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He dropped back during the early stages Saturday, racing last among 10 three-year-olds down the backstretch, and closed ground stoutly from his unenviable position, rolling past rivals in the stretch to be a fast-closing third.
Given the way the track was playing, Maxikoma turned in a huge performance. And don't be surprised to see him improve significantly off the comebacker.
Kentucky Derby Top 10