By Gary West, special to KentuckyDerby.com
And so it begins. Everything to this point on the Kentucky Derby trail has been prelude, like the first two or three rounds of a championship fight where the boxers jab and feint but don’t throw anything with conviction because they’re just testing each other, gauging each other’s power, monitoring each other’s speed and getting a feel for the ring. But then the fight suddenly begins in earnest, and from that moment forward every round and every punch matter.
The highly regarded Top Billing will test stakes company for the first time Saturday in the Grade 2, $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Listed at 7-2 on the morning line, the stretch-running colt drew post 12 in the 13-horse field, but trainer Shug McGaughey isn't overly concerned about the post position in the 1 1/16-mile test.
Seven years since Imawildandcrazyguy ran fourth in the Kentucky Derby and sixth in the Belmont Stakes, trainer Bill Kaplan is eyeing a return to the Triple Crown trail.
Kaplan, who turned 68 on February 15, has Florida-breds East Hall and We're All Set entered on Saturday's card at Gulfstream Park, each in races with potential Triple Crown implications. East Hall is in the Grade 2, $400,000 Fountain of Youth and We're All Set will take part in a stakes-quality dirt allowance at 1 1/16 miles.
General a Rod made a favorable impression when capturing the $100,000 Gulfstream Park Derby on January 1 and the performance has become more noteworthy in pursuing weeks.
Although the son of Roman Ruler is set to go to post in Saturday's Grade 2 Fountain of Youth without a race since his New Year's Day triumph, his first stakes win was flattered by runner-up Wildcat Red's 4 3/4-length romp in the Grade 3 Hutcheson on February 1.
A winner on both grass and Polytrack, We Miss Artie goes after his first dirt victory in Saturday's Grade 2, $400,000 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park.
Trained by Todd Pletcher for owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey, We Miss Artie is by Artie Schiller, a multiple graded stakes winner on grass including the 2005 Breeders' Cup Mile.
It is said that "one man's feast is another man's famine," and so it was Wednesday when Gore Range Stable's Emmett Park suddenly became part of the field for Saturday's Grade 2, $400,000 Risen Star at Fair Grounds.
The top two finishers from the Southwest at Oaklawn Park, Tapiture and Strong Mandate, figure to be heard from again and Bayern emerged as a possible star on the West Coast with a striking allowance victory last week.
Lecomte winner Vicar's in Trouble is expected to break from post 13 in Saturday's $400,000 Risen Star at Fair Grounds following the reported defection of Grade 1 winner Bond Holder from the 1 1/16-mile race.
Revenge was sweet but victory was sweeter for Taptiure, who stormed home a dominating winner of his three-year-old debut in Monday's Grade 3, $300,000 Southwest at Oaklawn Park.
Vicar's in Trouble might be the most aptly-named of the contestants in Saturday's Grade 2, $400,000 Risen Star at Fair Grounds. Barring any scratches, the Louisiana-bred winner of last month's Lecomte will have to overcome post 14 in the 1 1/16-mile Louisiana Derby prep.
The Risen Star, the highlight of the five-stakes Louisiana Derby Preview Day in New Orleans, attracted 14 colts and geldings plus two also-eligibles.
Commissioner and Top Billing, who fought out the finish of a key allowance race at Gulfstream Park on January 3, renew rivalry while making their stakes debut in Saturday's Grade 2, $400,000 Fountain of Youth -- this time with significant Kentucky Derby points on the line. The first race on the "Kentucky Derby Championship Series" of preps, the Fountain of Youth offers 50 points to the winner, 20 to second, 10 to third, and 5 to the fourth-place finisher.
Conquest Titan, late-running second to Cairo Prince in the January 25 Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park, will make his next start in the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby on March 29.
Trainer Mark Casse, who will saddle Coastline in Monday's Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park, said on Presidents' Day morning that he decided to skip Saturday's Grade 2, $400,000 Fountain of Youth and train up to Gulfstream's signature race.
Kobe's Back lived up to his name with a stylish rebound in Sunday's Grade 2, $200,250 San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita. By leaving his debacle in the December 14 CashCall Futurity well behind him, the powerfully-built gray joined stablemate Candy Boy on the Kentucky Derby trail for C R K Stable.
California Cup Derby winner California Chrome worked four furlongs at Los Alamitos Saturday in :47 4/5 in preparation for his foray into open company in the Grade 2, $300,000 San Felipe Stakes on March 8, where it is expected he will face, among others, the Bob Baffert-trained Bayern, smashing 15-length allowance winner on Thursday.
"I got him galloping out (five furlongs) in 1:00 3/5," said trainer Art Sherman, who had his regular exercise rider, Jay Conklin, aboard the California-bred son of Lucky Pulpit.
Commissioner, who ran his win streak to two races with an impressive allowance victory at Gulfstream Park on January 3, put in his final breeze for the Grade 2, $400,000 Fountain of Youth on Sunday morning.
With Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez aboard, the three-year-old A.P. Indy colt was clocked in :49 for four furlongs on the fast main track at Palm Meadows, Gulfstream's satellite training facility in Palm Beach County.
Following the injury to Exit Stage Left, the presumptive favorite for Saturday's Grade 3, $200,000 El Camino Real Derby, Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer called up the reserves in the form of Mr. and Mrs. Larry D. Williams' homebred Tamarando, and he saved the day for the barn. With Hall of Famer Russell Baze aboard, Tamarando wore down Dance with Fate by a half-length in the shadow of the wire at Golden Gate Fields.
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas has had a lot of luck preparing his young horses at Oaklawn for Triple Crown race success dating back to 1985 when Tank's Prospect won the Arkansas Derby and then the Preakness Stakes. In 1996, the Lukas-trained Grindstone used a second in the Arkansas Derby as a launching pad to victory in the Kentucky Derby and most recently, Oxbow finished second to his champion stablemate Will Take Charge in the 2013 Rebel Stakes before going on to win the Preakness Stakes.
In Trouble, undefeated winner of the Futurity in his most recent start, will have one more work at Palm Meadows before making his three-year-old debut.
Trainer Tony Dutrow schooled the bay Tiz Wonderful colt in the Gulfstream Park paddock during the first race on Friday.
"He hasn't been in the paddock since late September at Belmont," Dutrow said. "He's nearly ready to run, and we're trying to cover all our bases."
Cairo Prince, the early favorite for the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby on March 29, breezed a half-mile in :48 3/5 Saturday morning at Palm Meadows, Gulfstream Park's satellite training facility in Palm Beach County.
The three-year-old son of Pioneerof the Nile was posting his first move since his dominating 5 3/4-length victory in the January 25 Holy Bull at Gulfstream. He completed the workout under a tight hold by motionless exercise rider Rob Massey.
At this time a year ago, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas had a fairly deep bench of classic candidates, including eventual divisional champion Will Take Charge and Preakness winner Oxbow. For the time being, Lukas will be relying solely on Strong Mandate to reach similar heights as the Grade 1-winning son of Tiznow commences his sophomore campaign against 11 rivals Monday in the Grade 3, $300,000 Southwest at Oaklawn Park.