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.
The 1 1/16-mile contest serves as the middle leg of Gulfstream's two-turn graded stakes for Triple Crown aspirants, bookended by the January 25 Holy Bull and the March 29 Florida Derby. The top three from the Holy Bull are all swerving the Fountain of Youth. Convincing winner Cairo Prince and closing runner-up Conquest Titan are both training up to the Florida Derby, while third-placer Intense Holiday is shipping to Fair Grounds for Saturday's Risen Star instead.
But Commissioner and Top Billing will face 11 others with stakes experience, including Breeders' Futurity winner We Miss Artie; Holy Bull also-rans Almost Famous, Best Plan Yet and Our Caravan; the respective top three from the Gulfstream Park Derby, General a Rod, Wildcat Red (who came back to dominate the Hutcheson) and East Hall; C. Zee, runner-up in both the Spectacular Bid and Hutcheson; Casiguapo, second in last year's Hopeful and Delta Jackpot; and the Dale Romans duo of Medal Count and Hesinfront.
Commissioner, who drew the rail with John Velazquez, is dropping back slightly in trip for Pletcher. The A.P. Indy colt has raced over 1 1/8 miles in his last two, both narrow decisions. He enjoyed the test of stamina when breaking his maiden at Saratoga last August. Shelved for four months, Commissioner reappeared in the nine-furlong allowance at Gulfstream, and again did his best work late to edge Top Billing. The WinStar Farm runner gets a sixteenth of a mile less to work with on Saturday.
"After he broke his maiden, (WinStar President) Elliott (Walden) and I looked at the schedule and said there's basically nowhere to run a horse like this around two turns until the Remsen, so we made a decision at that point to give him a little break," Pletcher explained. "We sent him back to WinStar with a three-year-old campaign in mind.
"I think he's progressed a lot from the summer," Pletcher added. "He's an A.P. Indy, and you don't necessarily anticipate those horses being July two-year-olds. He was able to break his maiden at Saratoga, and he's a horse that we've always felt would improve at longer distances."
Pletcher also sends out We Miss Artie. Best known for his prowess on turf and synthetic, the Ken and Sarah Ramsey colorbearer scored his signature win in the October 5 Breeders' Futurity over Keeneland's Polytrack, and was just outdueled in his sophomore bow in the January 19 Kitten's Joy on the Gulfstream turf. In between, We Miss Artie was a creditable seventh in the November 2 Breeders' Cup Juvenile on the dirt at Santa Anita. He picks up the services of Joe Bravo and will break right next to Commissioner from post 2.
The stablemates breezed a half-mile at Palm Meadows on Sunday, with We Miss Artie going in :48 and Commissioner in :49.
"Both horses breezed really well and I think we're ready to go," Pletcher said.
Top Billing ran a sharp race in defeat to Commissioner. The Shug McGaughey pupil was taking a considerable step up in distance off his six-furlong maiden win at Laurel, a pedestrian pace did not set up well for his late kick, and he found himself in tight trying to rally down the lane. Nevertheless, the well-bred son of Curlin finished resolutely and missed by a neck to Commissioner.
Coming right back in a January 25 allowance at this track and trip, Top Billing went last to first by an emphatic 2 3/4 lengths. His final time of 1:42.66 was just .5 off Cairo Prince's clocking of 1:42.16 later on the card. In the process, Top Billing evoked comparisons with Orb, who swept last year's Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby for McGaughey.
Top Billing wasn't originally penciled in for the Fountain of Youth, but after stablemate Honor Code sustained bruising to his hind ankles, McGaughey rerouted the up-and-comer.
On Monday, Top Billing completed his major preparations by touring a half-mile in :50 over the fast track at Payson Park. He went in company with stablemate Peter Island, who clocked the same time, shortly after dawn.
"He's coming along -- he's getting more in tune with what we want him to do," McGaughey said while Top Billing was cooling out. "He used to work on a long rein, but now he gets more into it. I think we're right on schedule. Everyone seemed to be pleased.
"I think he is going in the right direction. I think he's doing good, he looks good, and everything's in order."
Top Billing was dealt a blow in post 12, however, and jockey Joel Rosario will have to mitigate the damage in the short run to the first turn.
Of the Holy Bull alumni, Almost Famous has the most upside. A flashy debut winner at Churchill Downs, drubbing Coastline, the Patrick Byrne pupil threw in a clunker behind that same rival when a poor fourth in the October 27 Street Sense beneath the Twin Spires. Almost Famous then wheeled back with a vengeance to crush a November 9 allowance, setting him up for a tilt at the Kentucky Jockey Club. Unfortunately, the son of Unbridled's Song was forced to scratch because of a bruised hind hoof.
Freshened until the Holy Bull, Almost Famous argued the pace before tiring to fourth, and is eligible to improve with that under his belt. Calvin Borel will be back in the saddle on the colt, who has landed in post 8.
General a Rod has won two of three starts for trainer Mike Maker. After opening his career with a rallying victory over Keeneland's Polytrack, the Roman Ruler colt finished second to Conquest Titan in an allowance at Churchill. General a Rod was last seen earning a hard-fought verdict over Wildcat Red in the January 1 Gulfstream Park Derby. That came around a one-turn mile, and on pedigree, General a Rod should prosper on the stretch-out. Javier Castellano takes over at the helm.
Wildcat Red, who had to skip the Holy Bull because of a cold, came back to dominate the February 1 Hutcheson by 4 3/4 lengths. Although Wildcat Red is superbly dependable, never having finished out of the top two, he faces a stamina question in this first attempt at a route of ground. Luis Saez picks up the mount aboard the son of D'wildcat.
Hutcheson runner-up C. Zee is another making a tough two-turn debut. Previously second to the sidelined Just Call Kenny in the six-furlong Spectacular Bid, he is one of two representing Jacks or Better Farm and trainer Stanley Gold.
"I think both were good races," Gold said. "In the Spectacular Bid we fanned wide on the turn and gave the winner enough room to come through; the outcome could have been changed had he not been able to get through. I think he repeated a very good performance in the Hutcheson and just got beat by a better horse that day. Maybe we would have used a little different strategy and perhaps gone with the winner when we could have, but we chose not to. I thought it was a big race. He's bred to go long, so I'm looking forward to big things from this horse.
"By choice, I'd like a little more time," Gold added of the three-week turnaround from the Hutcheson. "We were still unsure the quality he was coming into the Hutcheson. I was confident, but he had to prove it to me and he did. I would like to run not that close together, but I'm going to take a shot with him anyhow."
Those connections have an accomplished router in Best Plan Yet, who capped his juvenile season with scores in the Foolish Pleasure and In Reality division of the Florida Stallion Stakes at Calder. Best Plan Yet flopped when an uncharacteristic last of nine in the Gulfstream Park Derby, but turned in a much more encouraging effort when fifth in the Holy Bull.
"He only got beat a length and a half for second, which would have been fine," Gold said of the Holy Bull. "We had to steady twice; once on the turn because he got caught behind (jockey John) Velazquez's horse (Coup de Grace) who was stopping and we couldn't get between him and the two horses on the outside, and we had to stop once in the lane. We kept running down on the rail and we ran strong.
"A length and a half for second is good against that kind of company. I was disappointed but encouraged. It was a good race. The race before we were boxed in nearly the entire race from the gate all the way to the stretch and we never did get a chance to run, so that was a throw-out.
"He's still got a bright future, I think. This one will tell us. It's certainly not going to be an easy race. We're going to take a shot with him and see if he's going to move forward or look for easier company.
"They're both doing good," Gold said. "We're going to take a shot with both of them."
Edgard Zayas, who has ridden both Jacks or Better Farm entrants, will guide C. Zee. Best Plan Yet gets Paco Lopez in the irons.
Fellow Calder shipper Casiguapo had solid form at two. Best of the rest behind Strong Mandate in the Hopeful, he was fourth to Havana and Honor Code in the October 5 Champagne and a distant second to Rise Up in the November 23 Delta Downs Jackpot. Casiguapo failed to run up to that level when a nonthreatening fifth in an allowance sprint here on February 2. Trainer Mario Morales blamed first-time blinkers for that subpar showing. Casiguapo accordingly takes the blinkers off Saturday, and adds Jose Lezcano.
Romans is giving Medal Count and Hesinfront, both unplaced in their prior stakes attempts, another chance. Medal Count was a respectable fifth in the off-the-turf Bourbon at Keeneland before winding up 11th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The Dynaformer colt kicked off 2014 on the Gulfstream turf, getting up in time to force a dead-heat in a January 12 allowance. Hesinfront, seventh to Mr Speaker on the same course in the December 21 Dania Beach, was a well-beaten fourth in Top Billing's allowance.
Earlier on Saturday, the 6TH race also promises to have Florida Derby implications. Contested over the same 1 1/16-mile distance as the Fountain of Youth, the entry-level allowance has attracted hot debut maiden winners Matterhorn and Constitution from the Pletcher barn; Remsen third Wicked Strong, who seeks to rebound from his ninth in the Holy Bull; Team Valor International's Mexikoma, a better-than-appears sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile; and the Christophe Clement-trained Tonalist.