TO HONOR AND SERVE (Bernardini), among the leading winter book favorites for the Kentucky Derby (G1) off an impressive three-for-four juvenile campaign, will take his first step toward the Run for the Roses when he breaks from post 7 in Saturday's $400,000 Fountain of Youth S. (G2) at Gulfstream Park. The 1 1/8-mile test shapes up to be the sternest of To Honor and Serve's brief career thus far, with Grade 3 victors SOLDAT (War Front) and GOURMET DINNER (Trippi) also attempting to enhancing their classic aspirations.
A $575,000 yearling purchase campaigned by Charlotte Weber's Live Oak Plantation, To Honor and Serve is arguably the strongest Derby candidate in the Hall of Fame career of trainer Bill Mott, who enjoyed his first classic success last year when Drosselmeyer (Distorted Humor) took the Belmont S. (G1). After a two-length setback to eventual Iroquois S. (G3) winner Astrology (A.P. Indy) in his Saratoga debut, To Honor and Serve reeled off three straight wins to conclude his freshman campaign.
The winning streak commenced in an October 2 maiden at Belmont, where To Honor and Serve romped by 8 3/4 lengths in a 1 1/16-mile heat switched from turf to dirt. Choosing to bypass the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), Mott instead built up his colt's graded stakes reserves with wire-to-wire scores in the Nashua S (G2) and Remsen S. (G2) at Aqueduct. The winning margins of four lengths and two lengths, respectively, were both achieved over last week's Risen Star S. (G2) hero Mucho Macho Man (Macho Uno).
To Honor and Serve was weighted at 123 pounds on the Experimental Free Handicap, second among colts only behind undefeated divisional champion Uncle Mo (Indian Charlie).
"We're going into this race with only six works, which isn't an overabundance of works," Mott said. "This is by no means supposed to be his best race. We want to get started and get a good race. We'd love to see a good effort, but we're starting off the year, coming off a layoff."
The 10-1 third individual choice in last week's first Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool, To Honor and Serve will be guided for a fourth time by John Velazquez on Saturday. Also the regular rider for Uncle Mo, Velazquez, is expected to retain the mount until the two colts paths presumably cross on the first Saturday in May.
Soldat, the likely second choice in the eight-horse field, enjoyed success on turf at two but enters off a stunning nine-furlong dirt allowance win early in the Gulfstream meet. The Kiaran McLaughlin-trainee, who broke his maiden in the With Anticipation S. (G3) last summer prior to second-place efforts in the Pilgrim S. (G3) and Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1), made his seasonal bow on January 21. On the lead from the start, Soldat turned back a challenge rounding the far turn then drew off to win by 10 3/4 lengths over the sloppy going.
Given Soldat's three main track appearances have occurred on off-tracks, some questions remain whether the colt will demonstrate the same authority on fast going. That and more will be answered with Alan Garcia in the saddle.
Gourmet Dinner, who captured three stakes last year including the lucrative Delta Jackpot S. (G3), competed in the first major prep of the Gulfstream series for three-year-olds, the January 30 Holy Bull S. (G3). Breaking from the rail in that one-turn mile, Gourmet Dinner made a mid-race move into contention but hung a bit in the stretch and settled for third, 1 1/2 lengths behind Dialed In (Mineshaft).
The top three finishers from a course-and-distance February 5 allowance have been wheeled back in the Fountain of Youth. On top by 2 1/4 lengths that day was SHACKLEFORD (Forestry), with CASPER'S TOUCH (Touch Gold) nosing out EL GRAYLING (El Prado [Ire]) for second. The Fountain of Youth field is rounded out by last-out maiden winner BOWMAN'S CAUSEWAY (Giant's Causeway) and turf specialist RACING APTITUDE (Aptitude).
The deep Todd Pletcher bench is noticeably absent from the Fountain of Youth, but will have the likely favorite in TRAVELIN MAN (Trippi) for the $150,000 Hutcheson S. (G2) over seven furlongs. The E. Paul Robsham homebred blitzed six furlongs in 1:09 in winning his January 6 debut at Gulfstream by 7 1/4 lengths, and earned a 105 BRIS Speed rating. Pletcher will also be represented by last-out allowance winner RAZMATAZ (Forest Wildcat).
Also making their stakes debuts in the Hutcheson are the Darley-owned CROSSBOW (Bernardini), whose two scores this season were a maiden at Aqueduct and an allowance over the Hutcheson course and trip, and FLASHPOINT (Pomeroy), a recent 6 1/4-length Aqueduct graduate for trainer Rick Dutrow.
Among the stakes veterans are Sapling S. (G3) hero MADMAN DIARIES (Bring in the Heat), a solid fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf in his two-year-old finale; MANICERO (Mass Media), winner of the Pasco S., Inaugural S. and Jack Price Juvenile in his last three; and ROYAL CURRIER (Red Bullet), a multiple stakes winner who finished second in the Jimmy Winkfield S. in his most recent start.
Holy Bull also-rans LEAVE OF ABSENCE (Harlan's Holiday) and BLACK N BEAUTY (Devil His Due), along with the stakes-winning LITTLE DRAMA (Burning Roma), a half-brother to sprint champion Big Drama (Montbrook), round out the 10-horse Hutcheson.
Saturday's 3RD race, a $51,500 first-level allowance for three-year-olds over nine furlongs, features COOL BLUE RED HOT (Harlan's Holiday), a distant second to Soldat last time. He'll square off against Gulfstream graduates ARCH TRAVELER (Sky Mesa), HOTHERSAL (Smart Strike), NACHO BUSINESS (Rahy) and WASHINGTON'S RULES (Roman Ruler), as well as Tropical Park Derby runner-up PRIVATE PRIZE (Pure Prize).