There is a lot of rush to judgment in tracking Kentucky Derby contenders, a knee-jerk tendency to anoint or write off contenders based on singular gaudy efforts or less-than-dazzling runs.
Saturday's Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park and Grade II Risen Star at Fair Grounds are perfect enablers for such behavior.
Two horses who will be making their graded stakes debuts are the expected favorites for the 11⁄16-mile Fountain of Youth, and that in itself is a statement about the complexity of the 3-year-old class. The reigning juvenile champion, Shared Belief, has not worked out since Jan. 3 because of a quarter crack. As a result, allowance winners Top Billing and Commissioner have become two of the more well-regarded prospects.
In his first start since breaking his maiden at Saratoga last August, WinStar Farm's Commissioner defeated Top Billing by a neck going 11⁄8 miles at Gulfstream on Jan. 3. Those who thought Top Billing ran a winning race that day were validated next time out when the son of Curlin made a last-to-first charge going 11⁄16 miles on Jan. 25.
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Both colts seem to have that Derby-look potential, which is why progress — not perfection — should be the approach in their first stakes try. Commissioner will have to overcome the inside No. 1 post in the Fountain of Youth while Top Billing has the issue of having to break from post No. 12 in the run-up to the first turn.
"If he runs his race and doesn't win and there is a reason for it, I'm not going to be discouraged," said Shug McGaughey, trainer of Top Billing. "With Top Billing, his development still looks like it has a ways to go."
With 14 horses in the mix for the 11⁄16-mile Risen Star, expect racing luck to impact potential key contenders. Vicar's in Trouble showed tons of class in winning the Grade III Lecomte Stakes by 63/4 lengths on Jan. 18 but he too has to come from the far outside post in the Risen Star — no easy feat over the Fair Grounds track.
These two prep races signify the start of the real proving ground on the Kentucky Derby trail. It is also, however, a most key time to pay attention to the intangibles behind the wins and losses and what they suggest going forward, not just the black and white outcomes.
The Derby Dozen
1. Cairo Prince: Would be more concerned about his having nine weeks between his Holy Bull win and the Grade I Florida Derby on March 29 except for two things: a) I'll Have Another pulled off a similar feat (nine weeks between Robert B. Lewis and Santa Anita Derby) en route to winning the 2012 Kentucky Derby and b) trainer Kiaran McLaughlin successfully brought Invasor up to his win in the 2006 Breeders' Cup Classic off a 90-day layoff. And with three of Cairo Prince's four starts coming in graded stakes company, this is not a horse who lacks foundation.
2. Top Billing: He's in for it having to overcome the No. 12 post in Saturday's Fountain of Youth, so don't abandon hope if he doesn't win.
3. Candy Boy: Nothing not to like about his Robert B. Lewis win, and he was further flattered when stablemate Kobe's Back, who was well behind him in the CashCall Futurity, took the San Vicente with authority by 51/4 lengths. He has Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens excited, so that's all the endorsement needed.
4. Commissioner: Has his work cut out for him having to break from the No. 1 post in the Fountain of Youth. Elliott Walden, president of owner/breeder WinStar Farm, compared the colt to his legendary sire A.P. Indy saying, "He even runs like him to a certain degree, and that's kind of a steady, grinding type that has a good, strong action that's very consistent, and starts the race."
5. Honor Code: Has put in two works since missing about 10 days of training with bruising in his hind ankles, the latest being a 4-furlong move in :49.71 at Gulfstream on Feb. 19. "I think he's going in the right direction," said McGaughey, who added the Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 15 remains a target.
6. Tapiture: There weren't a lot of believers after his victory over a perceived soft field in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last November, but his 41/4-length victory in the Grade III Southwest Stakes was a coming-out affair. Sat just off the early pace, took the heat around the far turn once he moved to the lead and put daylight between himself and Strong Mandate despite still running green in the stretch. Hasn't been off the board in five career starts and we know he likes Churchill Downs.
7. Strong Mandate: Don't think he lost much respect in his Southwest defeat. Broke slow, was carried wide around the first turn and had to check at one point. He gathered himself to get into contention entering the lane but was all over the place swapping leads in the stretch. D. Wayne Lukas isn't known for having them hit first time back off a layoff, so watch out when the coach gets this one ready to fire.
8. Vicar's in Trouble: Will move in slightly from his original outside post of No. 14 in the Risen Star field because of the scratch of Bond Holder but will need every bit of the early speed he has flashed to get into good position. "It's not my first choice," jockey Rosie Napravnik said of the outside post. "But it could've been worse, and I think with his tactical ability — we should still be able to get a good trip from the outside."
9. Kobe's Back: Got a dream pace set-up in winning the 7-furlong San Vicente by 51/4 lengths, but the way he finished up under a hand ride from Joel Rosario was a head-turner. Is expected to get a key two-turn test in the Grade II Rebel Stakes.
10. Conquest Titan: Trainer Mark Casse opted to bypass the Fountain of Youth and point for the Florida Derby instead, saying the son of Birdstone "lost a few pounds" in the aftermath of his runner-up finish in the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes. "He's just kind of an average-sized horse, and the Fountain of Youth is going to come up tough," Casse said. "We're always at a disadvantage with him going a mile and a sixteenth, especially with a speed-favoring track. We're just going to wait for the Florida Derby."
11. Bond Holder: The latest victim of minor-setback syndrome. The Grade I winner was scratched out of the Risen Star after getting banged up during a rough flight from California to Louisiana. Is now likely for the Grade II San Felipe at Santa Anita on March 8 which may be a blessing in disguise as that field could be way smaller than the 13-horse lineup of the Risen Star.
12. Samraat: Covered 4 furlongs in an easy :49.30 at Palm Meadows on Feb. 15, his first move since winning the Grade III Withers Stakes to remain unbeaten in four starts.
THE NEXT DOZEN
Shared Belief, Bayern, Tamarando, California Chrome, Vinceremos, Bobby's Kitten, We Miss Artie, Indianapolis, Rise Up, Chitu, Noble Moon, Uncle Sigh.