By Gary West, Special to

NEW ORLEANS, La. – Sometimes this venerable sport can be the simplest of games, reduced to a formula that’s no more complicated than the fastest horse wins, even if he only has to be the fastest horse for a half-mile, which seemed to be the case Saturday at Gulfstream Park in Florida, where Wildcat Red won the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Meanwhile, a more complicated formula emerged in New Orleans, where circumstances finally yielded to perseverance, as Intense Holiday won the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds.

With their recent victories, they’re the new point leaders on the road to the 140th Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. Intense Holiday with 53 points and Wildcat Red with 50 are virtually ensured a reserved place in Churchill Downs’ starting gate on May 3. But if their recent efforts can be taken as intimations of what lies ahead, Intense Holiday’s future would seem the rosier of the two.

“There’s a lot of room to improve and a lot of room to grow,” said jockey Mike Smith in the winner’s circle after winning the Risen Star on Intense Holiday. “What I really liked was at the end galloping out. After I stopped him – you can tell when a 3-year-old has had enough – he took one breath and came back.” 

Smith said he didn’t “get to the bottom” of the long-bodied colt by Harlan’s Holiday who’s owned by the Starlight Racing partnership of Jack Wolf of Louisville. By that, of course, the Hall of Fame jockey meant Intense Holiday wasn’t spent by the effort, but rather had energy and eagerness in reserve. That was certainly the way Intense Holiday looked after the race, galloping out strongly beyond the wire while pricking his ears.

When he concluded his juvenile campaign in the Remsen Stakes, Intense Holiday actually finished fastest of all, running the final three-eighths of a mile faster even than the winner, Honor Code, and the runner-up, Cairo Prince. But because of a dawdling pace, that furious finish only got Intense Holiday up for fourth. And then in his seasonal debut, in the Holy Bull Stakes, after drawing an outside post position, he raced wide and in traffic to be third. But circumstances came together for him in New Orleans.

Except for a moment when Smith had to check him between rivals as the field straightened for the run down the backstretch, Intense Holiday had a clear trip over a surface that rewards various running styles and especially appreciates, with the longest stretch in the country, the prolonged charge.

That’s what Intense Holiday used to put himself into the winner’s circle, a prolonged charge, launched as he entered the second turn. He basically followed Vicar’s In Trouble, the 2-1 favorite, around the turn, where they raced four-to-five wide. In the lane, they set out for Albano, who had led from the start and still seemed strong after moderate early fractions, 48.14 for the opening half-mile and 1:13 for three-quarters.

Vicar’s In Trouble tired and drifted, switching back to his left lead in mid-stretch. But Intense Holiday kept coming, running a fourth quarter-mile in about 24 seconds. Albano never relented, but Intense Holiday caught him at the wire to win by a nose, stopping the teletimer after 1 1/16 miles at 1:43.86.

It was a solid time, comparable to the older Bradester’s 1:43.80 in the Mineshaft Handicap and about a length slower than Untapable’s 1:43.64 in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes, which she won in a superlative performance by more than nine lengths, possibly to become the early favorite for the Longines Kentucky Oaks. And it was a solid performance: The Risen Star was just the sort of race that can wake up a young horse, flip his switch and let him know that, yes, this is the purpose of running in circles. Back in December, when Intense Holiday had only a maiden victory on his resume but otherwise hadn’t finished better than fourth, his trainer, Todd Pletcher, insisted the dark, handsome colt could develop into a prominent Derby contender. Saturday, after the Risen Star, in the winner’s circle at Fair Grounds, Ginny DePasquale, Pletcher’s assistant who accompanied the colt to New Orleans, said Intense Holiday acted as if he “knew he did something great.” So maybe he indeed figured out his purpose. And if his Hall of Fame jockey’s assessment proves true and there’s plenty of room for growth and improvement, Intense Holiday could be a major player in the Kentucky Derby.

And what major players came splashing out of that Fountain of Youth in Florida? Well, at least one and maybe two and maybe more. But it’s a difficult race to assess, and here’s why: At Gulfstream Park, track records have been falling like autumn leaves, and the surface is so fast and so kind to speed that it’s very unlike any surface the horses are likely to encounter once they escape the Florida sunshine.

Just look at Saturday’s races at Gulfstream. Six were run on the main track, and five of those winners led throughout – or virtually throughout: General a Rod had his head in front of Wildcat Red after a half-mile, but they were eyeballing each other, head to head, together on the lead, through a lively 46.25 split And that’s just how they finished, a head apart, with Wildcat Red winning in 1:41.85 for the 1 1/16 miles. But the card’s races became a procession of speed. Social Inclusion zipped through an opening half in 44.64 seconds and then drew clear to win his debut by more than seven lengths; Global Strike stumbled but recovered to get the early lead and never lost it; Constitution, a handsome gray colt, grabbed the early advantage and completed 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.19 to put himself on the Derby trail with an allowance victory; Onlyforyou jumped to an immediate lead and pranced to an easy if rather slow Davona Dale victory.

And so it went – zoom, zoom. No matter the distance or the post position or the tides, being on the early lead was like owning the key to the winner’s circle. The only horse all day that rallied to win was Normandy Invasion, who charged from three lengths back – at Gulfstream, that counts as a Silky Sullivan-like rally. It was Normandy Invasion’s first outing since last year’s Kentucky Derby, and he set a track record (1:33.13 for the mile). In other words, to win Saturday at Gulfstream, you either had to have the early lead or you had to set a track record. Nothing in between worked. Zoom, zoom.

Well, in the context of the day’s races, analysis becomes difficult. Would Constitution and Wildcat Red have won anyway, even if the track hadn’t allowed speedsters to go zoom, zoom with impunity? Would they have won at, say, Churchill Downs? Maybe. The Fountain of Youth was indeed a fast race. But because of the speed bias, it’s difficult to say the Fountain of Youth winner is a prominent Kentucky Derby contender, even though he already might have a reservation in the starting gate. Wildcat Red is by D’wildcat, who won the 2001 Swale Stakes at Gulfstream but never won a race beyond seven-eighths of a mile. General a Rod, who’s by Roman Ruler and has more stamina influence in his pedigree, might be the better Derby prospect. Never worse than second in his career, he galloped out beyond the winner.

But the star of the Fountain of Youth was actually the horse that finished third, Top Billing. After the opening quarter-mile, he trailed, 13 lengths behind the leaders. But he finished third, two lengths behind General a Rod. Despite losing a little ground in the second turn and having to swing outside at the top of the stretch, he made up 11 lengths while running against the prevailing zoom-zoom bias.

He can take that show on the road, perhaps all the way to Kentucky.

Several talented horses will converge Saturday on Aqueduct for the Gotham Stakes and for a possible ticket to the Kentucky Derby. Among those entered are Samraat, Uncle Sigh, In Trouble, Noble Cornerstone, Extrasexyhippzster and Harpoon.