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Gene Kershner’s Post Time: Mohaymen looks to advance along Derby Trail

The Kentucky Derby trail shifts to South Florida for the Grade 2 $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes, a key prep race for the Florida Derby.

The 16-race “Kentucky Derby Championship Series” began last week with the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds Race Course won by Gun Runner. Points to the top four finishers of the Fountain of Youth will be doled out on a 50-20-10-5 basis. The race, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Saturday, will be run over 1 1/16th miles at Gulfstream Park.

The Fountain of Youth as recently as 2013 produced a Kentucky Derby winner, when Orb won the race on his way to a win in the Florida Derby before donning the roses in Louisville.

Grade 2 Holy Bull winner Mohaymen (6-5) will be the likely post-time favorite taking on five 3-year-olds attempting to garner one of the cherished 20 gates on the first Saturday in May. He’ll attempt to continue his assault on the Florida track with another win before the meeting’s biggest race, the Florida Derby on April 2.

The Tapit colt could be your Derby favorite should he continue his winning ways at Gulfstream Park. He’ll face his toughest challenge to date Saturday afternoon, with two undefeated challengers looking to knock off the morning-line favorite.

He drew the far outside post No. 6 for owner Shadwell Stables and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. Jockey Junior Alvarado will continue in the irons as he has for all four of Mohaymen’s career victories. The gray colt has nearly $560,000 in career earnings and has trained well at Palm Meadows this winter.

The $2.2 million purchase at the 2014 Keeneland September sale was regally bred to Justwhistledixie, a filly that was also trained by McLaughlin. He remained cautiously optimistic in his colt’s hopes, but knows the competition starts to get tougher from here on out.

“It’s a tough race but I wouldn’t trade places with anybody,” McLaughlin said. “It’s going to be his toughest race to date. Zulu is undefeated. Awesome Banner is undefeated. Awesome Speed is a nice horse. It’s going to be tough and we just hope we keep going and stay the same. We don’t have to improve but it’s more experience and hopefully we get lucky to win.”

Awesome Banner (7-2) comes in third off the layoff and off two graded-stakes wins at Gulfstream, but will be stretching out for the first time. In January, he won the Grade 3 Hutcheson and the Grade 2 Swale at sprint distances and will be tested for the first time going around two turns. His three career victories have come by a combined 19½ lengths.

Trainer Stanley Gold thinks he has plenty left in the tank for the Fountain of Youth and that he has yet to be tested. Jose Caraballo has the mount on Awesome Banner; the son of Awesome of Course, who was sired by Awesome Again, the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner.

One colt that looks to be maturing at the right time is Awesome Speed (4-1), sired by the aforementioned Awesome Again. Awesome Speed has won his last three, including a non-graded stake on the Gulfstream strip in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes in early January. He comes in with some lightning-fast bullet workouts and will likely be on or near the lead.

Irad Ortiz Jr. will take the reins from Joel Rosario, who has an injured wrist suffered from a spill earlier during the Gulfstream meeting. Trainer Alan Goldberg joked with the Gulfstream press corps that he needs a few things to happen to win the race.

“He does everything pretty easy, and he’s going into the race well,” Goldberg said. “If we can get Kiaran’s horse not to run and maybe Awesome Banner not to run and a few of those others, we’ll have a good shot.”

The lightly raced Zulu (3-1) will test his undefeated record and seek his third consecutive victory. He’s coming off an impressive 7¼-length allowance win on a sloppy track in mid-January at Gulfstream. Trained by meet-leading trainer Todd Pletcher and ridden by Hall of Famer John Velazquez, the regally bred colt is looking to prove he belongs with the big guns on the Derby trail.

Pletcher is bullish on the Bernardini colt and told the Gulfstream press office he feels he’s ready to roll.

“We could have opted for an easier spot but we felt like it was in his best interests to stay on a track that he’s 2 for 2 on and find out where he fits with the big boys,” Pletcher said. “We think he’s a very talented colt. We anticipate he’s going to improve stretching out. He’ll need to against this group, but we’ve been pleased with what he’s done so far and pleased with how he’s trained since the allowance win. We’ll find out a lot more Saturday.”

It’s hard to ignore a Pletcher colt during the Derby preps, especially one that is so well-bred and fresh. However, based on Mohaymen’s class and the way the race should set up for him, he’ll be tough to beat.

Post Time Outlook: 1-Mohaymen; 2-Awesome Speed; 3-Zulu.

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.