Practical Joke, who was the only horse of his generation besides champion Classic Empire to be a dual Grade 1 winner at two, kicks off what is expected to be a two-prep campaign for the Kentucky Derby (G1) in Saturday's $400,000 Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream Park.
A debut winner at Saratoga in early August who later captured the Hopeful (G1) and Champagne (G1) in photo finishes, the son of Into Mischief met defeat for the first time when finishing a distant third to Classic Empire in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) at Santa Anita.
"We didn't get the best of trips and the Breeders' Cup always tends to be tough for horses that don't like to lead," said Bill Lawrence, who co-owns Practical Joke with Seth Klarman of Klaravich Stables. "We were trying to make up ground, but that track doesn't tend to reward horses coming from off the pace too much."
Practical Joke has been a constant presence in the Top 10 of the Kentucky Derby leader board since his victory in the Champagne, and the 14 points he earned last season still places him at #9 heading into the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth. Although the early accumulation of points theoretically gives horsemen flexibility on how many preps they may want to contest in the months leading up to the Derby, Lawrence said the two-prep plan has been in place since the Breeders' Cup.
"He had a pretty good campaign running four races in three months last year, so that's pretty taxing on a two-year-old," he said. "If the horse is good, you want to have a horse that's fit enough to run, but you don't want to have a horse that's worn out and that can't run in the Triple Crown races. We're looking forward to [the Fountain of Youth]. He's well rested."
Practical Joke has turned in seven published works at Palm Meadows in Florida since January 17, three of which were bullets. His final piece of prep work for the Fountain of Youth was a four-furlong breeze in :48 on Sunday.
"[Trainer] Chad [Brown] is like most trainers, somewhat cautious. He's very encouraged and says he's training as good as any horse in the barn, which is what you want to hear," Lawrence said.
Practical Joke won't have to deal with Classic Empire, who is dealing with foot issues, again in the Fountain of Youth, but he will be facing Holy Bull (G2) winner Irish War Cry, among others. Lawrence said keeping the horse where's he training and doing well was a factor in them choosing the Fountain of Youth over Saturday's Gotham (G3) at Aqueduct as his comeback race.
"You're not necessarily looking for an easier spot this time of year, so you might as well run against everybody," he said. "There hasn't been anybody that seems to be a freak of nature or a monster yet. The first wave (of preps) doesn't always tend to flesh out someone who might be a monster."
A Fountain of Youth win, worth 50 Derby qualifying points, would confirm Practical Joke as a likely Derby starter, but even the 20 points on offer for a second-place effort may be enough to make the starting field, too.
"We think if our horse runs back to where he was as a two-year-old, and we think he's developed and grown, we're hopeful and optimistic that he can beat anybody out there," Lawrence said.
(Susie Raisher/Adam Coglianese Photography)