The Kentucky Derby trail heats up this weekend with two key races on the East Coast, at Gulfstream Park and Aqueduct Racetrack. Down in South Florida at Gulfstream, the Grade 2 $400,000 Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes, a key prep race for the Florida Derby, will be run at 1 1/16 miles.
In New York, the Grade 3 $300,000 Gotham Stakes will grace the Big A.
The 16-race “Kentucky Derby Championship Series” began last week with the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds Race Course won by Girvin. Points to the top four finishers of the Fountain of Youth and Gotham will be distributed on a 50-20-10-5 basis.
The 2013 Fountain of Youth produced a Kentucky Derby winner, when Orb won the race on his way to wins in the Florida Derby before donning the roses in Louisville. The race, scheduled for 6:05 p.m., is Race 13 on today’s Gulfstream Park card.
Grade 2 Holy Bull winner Irish War Cry (5-2) will be the likely post time favorite taking on 10 sophomores attempting to grab qualifying points for one of the cherished 20 gates on the First Saturday in May. He’ll attempt to continue his winning ways on the Florida track with another win before the $1 million Florida Derby on April 1. Joel Rosario will ride for the second straight time looking to extend the colt’s winning streak to five.
The Curlin colt was the third choice in last weekend’s Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pool 3 at 7-1 odds, behind McCraken (6-1) and All Others (5-1). He won the Holy Bull impressively, turning back Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Classic Empire, who suffered a foot injury in a disappointing third-place finish.
The chestnut is trained by Graham Motion, no stranger on the Derby trail, winning the 2011 edition with Animal Kingdom. This time he will be the favorite and not an underdog trying to make a statement. “It’s going to be a little different this time. We didn’t have a target on our back last time. I couldn’t believe how comfortably he beat the 2-year-old champion. That was exciting,” Motion said.
He’ll have several challengers, including Holy Bull runner-up Gunnevera (7-2), trained by Antonio Sano and ridden by Eclipse Award winning jockey Javier Castellano. Gunnevera had traffic issues early in the race, but finished strong behind Irish War Cry having to go outside after being steadied trying to run up the rail. The son of Dialed In beat Classic Empire by five lengths, finishing 33/4 lengths behind the winner.
He has Grade 2 (Saratoga Special) and Grade 3 (Delta Jackpot) wins on his resume and if Castellano can give him a clean trip he could threaten the favorite.
Practical Joke (3-1) will make his 2017 debut after an impressive 2-year-old campaign, including three wins on the NYRA circuit, including the Grade 1 Champagne. The highly talented Jose Ortiz will be in the irons for Chad Brown, last year’s Eclipse Award winning trainer.
Todd Pletcher, who has turf specialist Made You Look (10-1) in the race knows the field is competitive. “I thought Irish War Cry was very impressive. I thought Gunnevera had some subtle trouble and he ran very well. Practical Joke is coming back,” he added. “It’s no easy race.”
Post Time Outlook: 1. Gunnevera; 2. Irish War Cry; 3. Practical Joke; 4. Three Rules
The Gotham at Aqueduct features a heavy favorite in colt El Areeb (6-5), who has dominated his last four efforts, winning by a combined 29¼ lengths. He is trained by Cal Lynch, who trained Lynx in the 2014 Prince of Wales at Fort Erie Race Track.
A field of 10 will attack the Big A surface this afternoon at 4:50 p.m. in Race 8.
The son of Exchange Rate only finished at 20-1 in Future Pool 3, but will skyrocket up many Derby charts if he continues to impress at the New York track. He’s also fared well on off tracks, should the Aqueduct inner come up wet.
Lynch thought he would skip the Gotham and point directly toward the Wood Memorial on April 1, but decided not to pass up this race based on the way he’s trained up to the race. “He’s been doing it fairly easy and acting like he wants to go do something, “ said Lynch. “We won’t stand in his way. I didn’t know if I really felt like sitting on him for another four weeks if he’s going right.”
His main competitor was the runner-up behind him in the Withers in True Timber (6-1). The Mineshaft colt owned by the fabled Calumet Farm, finished over four lengths behind El Areeb in the tune up for the Gotham. Kendrick Carmouche will ride for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.
The race has not produced a Derby winner in a number of years, but has some impressive names on its win list including Easy Goer, Secretariat and Dr. Fager.
A horse that could be a surprise winner is So Conflated (8-1), a Doug O’Neill shipper out of Southern California. The Cal Derby winner has a late closing move that could work perfectly with some of the speed in the race between El Areeb, Pletcher’s Action Everyday (10-1) and the Hard Spun colt Miggsy (15-1).
Post Time Outlook: 1. So Conflated; 2. El Areeb; 3. True Timber; 4. Miggsy
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.