A proven commodity on turf and a wet track, SOLDAT (War Front) erased concerns about a fast track with his victory in the Fountain of Youth S. (G2). He benefited from an ideal trip, leading wire to wire from the rail, but the comfortable two-length decision served its purpose. Soldat is developing into a top Kentucky Derby (G1) contender for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.
Soldat will have plenty of bottom to him when he gets to Churchill Downs. His final prep will come in the April 3 Florida Derby (G1), which will give him three consecutive races at 1 1/8 miles this year, and he closed out his juvenile season with three straight routes on the turf.
And Soldat's BRIS Speed ratings this year (108 and 104) are outstanding.
The Derby is nine weeks from Saturday.
Fountain of Youth
Soldat was easily overlooked at the beginning of the year -- he appeared to be strictly a turf performer -- but the same could be said of Big Brown, or Barbaro, who didn't make his first start on a fast track until the 2006 Florida Derby. Soldat isn't the unbeaten dynamo that Big Brown or Barbaro were at this point in their careers, but he's emerged as a serious force in South Florida.
"I love turf in the pedigree when they come to Louisville," said John Asher, Churchill Downs' vice president of racing communications. "The dirt is pretty kind to turf (runners)."
Soldat was all about turf racing last year. McLaughlin put him in a couple of dirt sprints first, but he wanted to run at longer distances and Soldat found immediate success when trying a grass route at Saratoga, breaking his maiden in the With Anticipation S. (G3). He went on to finish second in both the Pilgrim S. (G3) at Belmont Park and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G2) at Churchill Downs.
His connections considered the January 16 Dania Beach S., a one-mile turf affair, for his sophomore return, but Soldat was instead given the opportunity on the main track. That turned out to be a very wise move.
After sloshing his way to a 10 3/4-length score over allowance rivals on January 21, Soldat stepped up against better rivals in the Fountain of Youth. But he surprisingly caught a field short on speed and his rail draw assured a forwardly-placed trip. Alan Garcia hustled Soldat to the front soon after the break and the dark bay colt led the way on a short lead through moderate early splits of :24 1/5, :47 4/5 and 1:12 2/5.
TO HONOR AND SERVE (Bernardini) offered a brief challenge on the far turn, but Soldat shrugged off his rival and opened up turning for home. He was never threatened during the stretch run, passing the eighth-pole with a three-length advantage in 1:37 before finishing up in 1:50 1/5.
The visual evidence suggests, as well as his BRIS Speed and Pace numbers, that Soldat will continue to be a major player this spring. And I love the fact that he will have six consecutive route starts heading into the Kentucky Derby.
Soldat will receive a five-week freshening in advance of the Florida Derby and another five weeks to the Derby. The dark bay probably won't get away with a soft lead in his upcoming starts, but Soldat can win from just off the pace if necessary. He's got a lot going for him.
Third in the Holy Bull S. (G3), GOURMET DINNER (Trippi) flattered the form of Dialed In (Mineshaft) in the Fountain of Youth. After stalking the pace in fourth under new rider Ramon Dominguez, Gourmet Dinner offered a nice rally off the far turn to finish a clear second, 4 3/4 lengths better than To Honor and Serve. I can't get excited about Gourmet Dinner's chances at 10 furlongs, but the hard-knocking colt is dangerous at any distance up to 1 1/8 miles.
With a victory in the Delta Jackpot (G3), Gourmet Dinner padded an already sizable graded-earning bankroll on Saturday.
To Honor and Serve is eligible to improve upon his first race back but will need to show much more in his final tune-up, the Florida Derby. The well-bred colt overwhelmed the competition on the front end last year, winning the Remsen S. (G2), Nashua S. (G2) and a maiden special weight with little resistance, but won't have it so easy at three.
Trainer Bill Mott wasn't concerned afterward, expecting a big leap forward next time in the Florida Derby, but I was disappointed with his effort Saturday. To Honor and Serve spit the bit early, with John Velazquez basically gearing down on him through the stretch, and he's never overcome adversity in his five-race career. Mott should have him ready for major events later this year, but I wonder about the the first Saturday in May.
FLASHPOINT (Pomeroy) flashed his considerable sprint skills in Saturday's seven-furlong Hutcheson S. (G2), recording a stunning 7 1/4-length victory in only his second career start, and trainer Richard Dutrow was making plans for the Florida Derby in the winner's circle. That would represent a major challenge for the lightly-raced colt, who is bred to relish one-turn distances and captured his career debut going six furlongs at Aqueduct on January 15.
However, Flashpoint's owner is now considering an unconventional path to a possible Derby berth, with the seven-furlong Swale S. (G2) on April 3 as a final prep. A victory there would give him only $180,000 in graded earnings, which may not be enough to secure a spot in the 20-horse Derby field, and Flashpoint would be thrown into a seemingly impossible situation if he did make the field.
Flashpoint is all speed and appears to have a bright future in sprints, but he isn't a serious prospect for this year's Derby.
ARCH TRAVELER (Sky Mesa) captured a nine-furlong allowance on the Fountain of Youth undercard, but netted only a 90 BRIS Speed rating in the slowly-run race. He will get the opportunity to face stakes rivals next time, but it's difficult to get excited about his chances against top-class rivals this spring. Look for more from the James Jerkens colt later this year.
Fair Grounds offered a two-turn allowance for three-year-olds Saturday, and trainer Al Stall saddled the first two finishers, LEFT (Arch) and SOUR (Lemon Drop Kid), respectively. A turf debut winner on January 29, Left is now two for two in his career, with room for plenty of improvement in the future, but his 88 Speed rating was dismal. Sour is another lightly-raced type who is eligible to keep improving, but he was never getting to the winner in the stretch drive.
The Derby prospects of INDIAN WINTER (Indian Charlie) took a severe hit in Saturday's Turf Paradise Derby as the Jerry Hollendorfer runner was placed a non-threatening second to 40-1 longshot BEER MEISTER (Pleasant Tap), who earned his first victory since taking a $25,000 maiden claimer on New Year's Eve. Indian Winter was testing the waters at two turns, and he appears better served in sprints.
FUSA CODE (Fusaichi Pegasus) broke his maiden in a very non-descript edition of the Borderland Derby Saturday, registering an 88 Speed rating.
It's now official: UNCLE MO (Indian Charlie) will cut back to a one-turn distance in the March 12 Timely Writer at Gulfstream Park. The Tampa Bay Derby (G2) is still an alternative should the Timely Writer not fill, but trainer Todd Pletcher made sure to nominate 12 other horses to help the cause.
It's the path of least resistance for the unbeaten juvenile champ, whose only two-turn prep for the Derby will come in the April 9 Wood Memorial (G1). Uncle Mo was so dominant last year, easily winning his lone two-turn start in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), but his pedigree is a little speed-oriented and the Derby distance was the biggest (or perhaps only) concern entering 2011. I don't see how the Timely Writer helps his chances on that front.
The 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby seemed like the perfect prep to enhance his conditioning for longer distances.
Saturday's Gotham S. (G3) marks the return of STAY THIRSTY (Bernardini), who I viewed as a short horse in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile off a two-month layoff. I'm expecting much more in his 2011 debut.
The Pletcher trainee flashed immense talent in two sprints at Saratoga last summer and with a pedigree geared toward longer distances, his future looked extremely promising at the time. However, Stay Thirsty then fell under the shadow of Uncle Mo and wasn't allowed to race again until November, scratching out of the Champagne S. (G1) in favor of his stablemate. He has the opportunity to make a name for himself over the inner track at Aqueduct.
Whirlaway S. winner TOBY'S CORNER (Bellamy Road) is an improving colt from the Graham Motion stable. The late runner must avoid leaving himself too much to do in the stretch against Stay Thirsty, but Toby's Corner netted a 103 BRIS Speed rating last time and rates an intriguing colt at this stage.
The rest of the Gotham field has plenty to prove.