From a historical standpoint, Saturday's Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park and Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds haven't exactly lit up the board when it comes to their impact on Kentucky Derby results.
One has to go back to Thunder Gulch in 1995 to find the last Fountain of Youth winner that ended up taking the roses. And no Risen Star victor has finished better than third in the first leg of the Triple Crown, though 2002 Kentucky Derby hero War Emblem did run sixth in the race en route to Louisville.
The past can state its case all it wants, but this year's editions of the two races carry significant weight in determining the participants at Churchill Downs this May. The Fountain of Youth and Risen Star mark the start of the first leg of the "Championship Series" portion of the new Kentucky Derby qualifying system which sees prep races in this segment award 50 points to the winner, 20 to the runner-up, 10 to third and five to fourth.
With points rather than graded stakes earnings now the determining factor to getting into the Derby field, the entries flooded in more than was forecast just a couple weeks ago — especially for the Risen Star, which drew an overflow field of 15 with two expected to scratch.
Having to face a double-digit number of foes is admittedly "the last thing" owner Rick Porter had in mind when he and trainer Chad Brown decided to send expected Risen Star favorite Normandy Invasion to Fair Grounds for his season debut.
As much as the points have been a prominent talking and drawing point in this early Triple Crown season, Porter says the new system had at best a marginal impact in plotting the course for his Derby hopeful.
"It really hasn't (changed anything) because we think it's the right thing for the horse, deciding on two prep races," Porter said Friday. "Everything for him sort of fell together to run at the end of February.
"You know, you can't try to outsmart the system. I keep saying to Chad if we belong in the Derby we'll have enough points. And that's the way I felt about the graded earnings. I think it all takes care of itself."
The 2013 debut of Grade I winner Violence is the main story line for the 11⁄16-mile Fountain of Youth, but Normandy Invasion has elevated expectations of his own to try to justify.
Normandy Invasion broke his maiden by 91/4 lengths second time out going a mile at Aqueduct last August. Though he was beaten a nose by Overanalyze in the Grade II Remsen Stakes 22 days later, he emerged with arguably more acclaim than the winner that day because of the sustained rally he mounted from the second turn on, picking off rivals over the final furlong after breaking from post No. 10.
"I still think he won except they didn't send me the win money," Porter joked.
Porter and his team thought the leggy Normandy Invasion screamed classic potential from a physical and pedigree standpoint when they purchased him for $230,000 at the 2012 Keeneland April 2-year-olds in training sale. Though the long Fair Grounds stretch figures to be favorable for the bay colt's late-running style, the prospect of the track coming up sloppy is a concern for his connections.
Even if the system for getting to the Kentucky Derby has changed, the philosophy for Porter — who has two second-place finishes from four Derby starters — has not. Winning right now, as history proves, isn't the end-all be-all objective.
"A sloppy or muddy track wouldn't be conducive to his running style but ... I think it will be a good experience for him," Porter said of Normandy Invasion. "We don't have to win the race. We'd be happy to hit the board and finish well, set ourselves up to be about 90 percent for the next race and 100 percent for the first Saturday in May."
The Derby Dozen
1. Itsmyluckyday: Might lose this top spot if Violence wins Saturday but for now, he has the most checks and balances in his favor. The seasoned son of Lawyer Ron took down champion Shanghai Bobby in the Holy Bull, has already won over three different tracks and hasn't taken a step wrong yet while running fast in 2013. Only question is how much upswing he has left in him.
2. Violence: Leads a field of 11 entered for the Fountain of Youth with a decided class edge on paper. Won each of his three starts without being asked to give his all, according to trainer Todd Pletcher. Has the look of a professional runner who can keep improving at each stage.
3. Revolutionary: Had every reason and then some to quit running in his trouble-filled Withers Stakes start, which makes his eventual victory all the more impressive. Will probably have only one more prep before the Derby as Pletcher tries to keep all his big kids apart leading up to May 4.
4. Flashback: So untested with only two career starts to his credit but was visually impressive winning the Grade II Robert B. Lewis by 61/4 lengths, even if he did face only three rivals. Will probably get a truer read on him should he turn up in the San Felipe on March 9 as Goldencents is also slated for that test.
5. Shanghai Bobby: The reigning juvenile champion isn't being knocked for anything he's done wrong on the track but there is concern over his ability to get 10 furlongs and how lackluster his vanquished rivals in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile have performed. Juvenile runner-up He's Had Enough has been well-beaten in two starts since and while Capo Bastone, third in the Juvenile, did win his season debut against allowance company, he was all out to do so in a pedestrian time.
6. Verrazano: The buzz surrounding this son of More Than Ready after his facile allowance win is reminiscent of the chatter 2008 Derby winner Big Brown generated after his 123/4-length allowance win going 1 mile at Gulfstream. The Tampa Bay Derby on March 9 will be Verrazano's graded stakes debut. "I picked out the Tampa Derby because we felt like March 9th was a race that could set him up for just about anything after that and would leave the window open for the Florida Derby back in three weeks," Pletcher said. "We also put him on a nice schedule for the Wood Memorial a month later and if we needed an extra week then we still have the Arkansas Derby as a third plan."
7. Oxbow: Blew the doors off his foes winning the Grade III LeComte by 111/2 lengths at Fair Grounds in his season debut but will get a class test in the Grade II Risen Star. If the track comes up wet, his front-running style could be even more dangerous.
8. Goldencents: Son of Into Mischief has clicked off four straight bullet 6-furlong moves since winning the Grade III Sham Stakes on Jan. 5, including covering the distance in 1:10.40 at Santa Anita on Friday.
9. Normandy Invasion: The potential for a wet track in the Risen Star is not ideal for the colt's closing style, but the education he got in the Remsen in overcoming a difficult post could serve him well in the full field Saturday.
10. Orb: If trainer Shug McGaughey had his druthers, he would rather put this colt in another allowance race than in the Fountain of Youth off his season-opening win going 11⁄8 miles. However, McGaughey wouldn't have green-lighted this plan if he didn't think Orb was up to the challenge, and the way he handled the Gulfstream track in his season debut says he could be a threat if Violence is off his game.
11. Cerro: The Palm Beach Stakes on the Gulfstream turf was the original plan for Team Valor's colt, but the need to gain points under the new Kentucky Derby qualifying system prompted trainer Graham Motion to swing for the Fountain of Youth instead. Like Orb, he also won going 11⁄8 miles at Gulfstream on Jan. 26 but covered the distance in 1:50.29 compared to Orb's final time of 1:51.05.
12. Vyjack: Has been off the radar since winning the Grade II Jerome on Jan. 5 but has quietly been working solid 5- and 6-furlong moves on the Aqueduct inner track. The Grade III Gotham looms next on March 2.
The next dozen
Overanalyze, Super Ninety Nine, Tiz the Truth, Falling Sky, Shakin It Up, Delhomme, He's Had Enough, Uncaptured, Dynamic Sky, Mac the Man, Treasury Bill, Den's Legacy.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.