It's rare that top colts meet this early on the Derby trail, but on today at Gulfstream Park, two of the best colts on this year's trail meet in the $400,000 Grade 2 Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes.
The Hallandale, Fla., track is no stranger to big races and this one has most race fans excited for a matchup typically not seen until Derby Day itself. The Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up Union Rags, a highly regarded sophomore, is looking to bounce back from his only career loss. After fanning out in the late stages of the race, he just missed catching the 2-year-old champ, Hansen, in deep stretch.
Union Rags will be pitted against Starlight Racing's undefeated colt, Algorithms, the morning line favorite. Algorithms defeated Hansen in winning the Grade 3 Holy Bull in late January, pulling away by five lengths over the mile distance. On Sunday he will stretch out another 1/1 6-mile in the 8 1/2 -furlong affair.
Adding intrigue to the race is that Javier Castellano was the regular rider for both horses, and was forced to choose which horse he will ride in the Fountain of Youth. He chose trainer Todd Pletcher's colt Algorithms, mainly due to his commitment to the Pletcher barn.
Starlight partner Jack Wolf wasn't surprised by Castellano's decision. "I am sure it was a tough decision for him," he said. "I think these riders have to do what's best for them."
Wolf also thinks his Bernardini colt should stretch out nicely.
"I think he's got the breeding to be a two turn horse," Wolf said. "I was talking to Todd [Pletcher] about his work and he said this horse just gallops out fantastically after his [workouts] and on the top horses he's been involved with so that is pretty exciting."
Union Rags trainer Michael Matz saw the writing on the wall when his jockey jumped ship to Pletcher's barn.
"Todd has so many horses and you know I don't have near that, that I can offer Javier and I just wanted to know early enough," Matz said in a teleconference on Tuesday. He picked up a solid rider in Julien Leparoux for Union Rags and thinks his riding style matches nicely.
"I thought my horse ran a good race in the Breeders' Cup, unfortunately we got there a little too late. I think they're all good riders and actually it turns out that I had asked Julien to ride this horse first and he told me he had another mount up in Saratoga, and his mount did get hurt, and he wasn't able to go on the race, and he's been trying to get on Union Rags ever since. So things work in funny ways. I'm perfectly happy with Julien, he's a good rider," Matz said.
Matz won the 2006 Kentucky Derby with the ill-fated Barbaro and he sees a number of similarities between the late champion and Union Rags.
"Barbaro wasn't as mature as Union Rags as a 2-year-old," he said. "It just took him a little bit later where Union Rags had four races at 2 years old, Barbaro only had two races. So I think the timing was just a little bit different."
Another horse that may be overlooked at the windows is Casual Trick. Robert Lapenta's Bernardini colt stumbled at the start as the favorite in his last race, which one can draw a solid line through. In more jockey musical chairs, Corey Nakatani will be in the irons, replacing Johnny Velazquez, who preferred Discreet Dancer over conditioner Nick Zito's good-looking colt. He's also been working lights out over the past month. He could be a factor in exotic wagering.
The wild card in the race is the speedy Discreet Dancer, another Pletcher trainee. With the ever present Velazquez aboard, he is stepping up into graded company for the first time and faces a real class test against Algorithms and Union Rags. Coincidentally, Castellano also rode Discreet Dancer in his two career starts, both wins. He posted a bullet workout on Feb. 20 at the Palm Meadows training facility and tries two turns for the first time.
This could be the start of a fresh new rivalry, with the Florida Derby on March 31 looming next on the road to the Kentucky Derby. I'm leaning toward the class angle in the Fountain of Youth and projecting the top two rivals will rise to the top in an exciting stretch duel.
Post Time outlook: 1 - Algorithms; 2 - Union Rags; 3 - Casual Trick; 4 - Discreet Dancer.
Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer and handicapper who blogs at equispace.blogspot.com. He blogs every Friday at the Sports, Ink blog and can be found on Twitter (@EquiSpace).