The Kiaran McLaughlin-trained SOLDAT (War Front) was second choice behind To Honor and Serve (Bernardini) for much of the wagering for Saturday's $400,000 Fountain of Youth S. (G2) at Gulfstream Park, but a late surge of support resulted in the dark bay closing as the 7-5 favorite in a field of eight three-year-olds. The pari-mutuel wave proved entirely justified as Soldat took command from the start, set a moderate pace, and held off challenges from To Honor and Serve and Gourmet Dinner to register a two-length win in the nine-furlong prep for the April 3 Florida Derby (G1).
Owned in partnership by Harvey Clarke, Craig Robertson III, Paul Braverman and Namcook Stable, Soldat broke from post 1 and opened up a length through an opening quarter in :24 1/5. El Grayling (El Prado [Ire]) chased in second while To Honor and Serve, making his first start since winning the Remsen S. (G2) in November, endured a three-wide trip entering the clubhouse turn. Down the backside, El Grayling applied pressure to Soldat, cutting the margin to a head through a half in :47 4/5. That longshot soon ran out of steam and was ultimately eased, and the baton was passed to To Honor and Serve.
The match most fans were waiting for occurred around the far turn as the 6-5 To Honor and Serve moved up to within a head of the leader after six furlongs in 1:12 2/5. El Grayling continued his retreat behind them while 7-2 third choice Gourmet Dinner (Trippi) advanced from fourth and the rest of the field languished far behind. The duel between the two favorites proved short lived, however, as Soldat began to step away from a short To Honor and Serve and opened up three lengths with a furlong to go. Gourmet Dinner easily moved past To Honor and Serve to grab second but could not close the needed ground. Under Alan Garcia, Soldat finished two lengths clear in a time of 1:50 1/5 over the fast track.
"I just went to the lead and tried to slow it down as much as possible," Garcia said. "My house just kept on going today. I don't think anyone was going to get by us today the way he ran. He was really good today."
Soldat returned $4.80, $3 and $2.20 while topping the $13.80 exacta and $37.60 trifecta. Gourmet Dinner was 4 3/4 lengths clear of To Honor and Serve, who had 2 1/2 lengths on Bowman's Causeway (Giant's Causeway). The 1-2-7-5 trifecta returned $178.60. The order of finish was rounded out by Shackleford (Forestry), Racing Aptitude (Aptitude), Casper's Touch (Touch Gold) and El Grayling.
"It's on to the Florida Derby now," McLaughlin said. The timing of the program here is perfect for us -- five weeks from now to the Florida Derby and another five weeks to the Kentucky Derby (G1)."
Despite To Honor and Serve's loss by 6 3/4 lengths, jockey John Velazquez was encouraged by the performance.
"I thought he ran very well," he said. "He settled really well going down the backside. He ranged up to the leader on the far turn and finished well, just didn't have the closing kick he usually does," Velazquez said. "I think, off the layoff, that is to be expected. Overall, though, I thought he ran terrific."
Soldat made his debut at Belmont on June 10, in a five-furlong dash in the mud, and ultimately lost his duel with Bail Out the Cat (Tale of the Cat) by 2 1/4 lengths. Soldat was 10 1/2 lengths clear of next-out winner Pluck (More Than Ready). Next time out on a good track, Soldat was no match for the highly-regarded Wine Police (Speightstown) in a 5 1/2-furlong maiden at Saratoga on July 24, but was again 5 3/4 lengths clear of third. Wine Police boosted the form when third in the Hopeful S. (G1) at the Spa.
Switched to the turf for the September 3 With Anticipation S. (G3), Soldat broke his maiden in convincing fashion by three lengths. It remained an open question whether the surface, or the stretch-out to two turns, was responsible for his improvement. Soldat stayed on the grass and concluded his two-year-old campaign with two strong efforts in defeat. He hit the gate en route to finishing second in the October 3 Pilgrim S. (G3) to Air Support (Smart Strike), whom he beat in their other meetings, and was an honorable runner-up by a length to the impressive Pluck in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G2).
Soldat opened up his three-year-old campaign in a January 21 first-level allowance at Gulfstream over nine furlongs. Breaking on top in the sloppy conditions, Soldat repelled a mid-race challenge around the far turn and drew off to an impressive 10 3/4-length triumph. With this second straight score at 1 1/8 miles, Soldat pushed his career mark to 7-3-4-0, $554,300.
Bred by Brookfield Stud in Kentucky, Soldat brought $180,000 as a Keeneland September yearling. He is the first registered foal from the unraced Le Relais (Coronado's Quest), who has since produced an unnamed two-year-old filly by Badge of Silver and a yearling colt by Tiz Wonderful. Le Relais is herself a half-sister to Canadian Grade 3 winner Mulrainy (Star de Naskra), and she hails from the family of Grade 2 victor Pine Dance (Pine Bluff) and seven-time stakes queen and Grade 2-placed The Happy Hopper (El Prado [Ire]).