Five things to know for 2018 Fountain of Youth
As last year’s champion two-year-old male Good Magic returns to action in Saturday’s Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream Park, the 2018 Kentucky Derby (G1) trail just got its biggest player back on the field.
But the outcome isn’t a foregone conclusion. Good Magic will meet some useful rivals with a race-fitness edge in the 1 1/16-mile test, worth Derby points on a scale of 50-20-10-5 to the respective top four finishers:
Here are my five things to know for the Fountain of Youth:
1. Good Magic comes from a high-percentage barn that excels off layoffs. Trainer Chad Brown boasts a 27 percent strike rate with horses returning from an absence of 90 days or longer, according to the Brisnet stats. Moreover, since Good Magic is slated for just two preps on the road to Derby 144, it’s not as if he’s racing himself into fitness. While he’s likely to aim for the absolute peak on Derby Day, Good Magic probably isn’t that far off his A game. And with the abundance of speed on tap, the Curlin colt figures to get a favorable set-up similar to his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) victory.
The counterpoint to this line of thinking is that Good Magic was given a true winter vacation, enjoying some down time on the farm before rejoining Brown. The game plan was reportedly to bring him back into the Triple Crown grind, with all of its rigorous demands, as fresh as possible. Does that imply that Brown’s usual win percentage may not obtain in these specific circumstances? Good Magic doesn’t need to win to remain a top-tier Derby contender. Nevertheless, a loss would add to the volatility of the sophomore scene, and spark debate about whether he’s still the consensus number one.
2. Free Drop Billy spearheads the Dale Romans trio but has a point to prove if he wants to emulate sire Union Rags, the 2012 Fountain of Youth winner. Most recently runner-up in the Holy Bull (G2), Free Drop Billy is the lone entrant coming off Gulfstream’s prior points race, where he was emphatically brushed aside by Audible. That’s become something of a pattern, since he loomed before failing to see his challenge through in last summer’s Sanford (G3) and Hopeful (G1). The exception, of course, was his romp in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1), beating future Risen Star (G2) upsetter Bravazo. But at the risk of being macabre, remember that ill-fated Ten City was moving brilliantly on the far turn before breaking down in the Keeneland feature. If you want to play counterfactuals, would Free Drop Billy have prevailed over Ten City?
Still, Free Drop Billy has run only one bad race, his ninth behind Good Magic in the Breeders’ Cup, so he’s entitled to be involved in the finish. And he’s more accomplished than the other two of Romans’ Fountain of Youth trio, Promises Fulfilled and Storm Runner.
UPDATE: Romans may scratch Free Drop Billy in favor of next Saturday’s Gotham (G3), the trainer told HRRN late Friday afternoon. Thanks to Anthony Stabile (@TheBigAStabile) for tweeting, and for my colleague Vance Hanson for alerting me as I was in the middle of writing!
Promises Fulfilled, a son of Romans star Shackleford (who flopped in this race in 2011), was last seen finishing third in the November 25 Kentucky Jockey Club (G2). Although that was creditable considering he set the pace in his two-turn and stakes debut, the collateral form gives pause. The top two from the Kentucky Jockey Club, Enticed and Tiz Mischief, came back to fill the bottom rungs of the exotics (fourth and third respectively) in the Holy Bull. Promises Fulfilled also has a tall order being drawn widest of all in post 10.
Storm Runner, despite his turfy pedigree, is happier on dirt. A resounding maiden winner in an off-the-turf event at Churchill, Storm Runner didn’t try the main track again until a February 4 allowance at this track and trip, and upset 4-5 shot Mississippi. His gaudy 102 Brisnet Speed figure commands respect, albeit in a strange race where the principals didn’t put their best foot forward. Navistar lost the plot on the far turn, veered out, and was eased, and Mississippi found himself farther back than anticipated early. Storm Runner made a good move to open up swinging into the stretch but then lugged in, lurched to his left lead, shortened stride, and almost got caught by a belatedly firing Mississippi. In other words, the Speed figure looks better than he actually did in the running.
3. Unbeaten Swale (G3) winner Strike Power is a one-turn machine who tries a gentle kind of route. The well-bred son of Speightstown shapes as a sprinter, perhaps a miler at best, if you take to heart the visual cues from his 5 1/2-furlong maiden romp and the Swale. In both starts, the Mark Hennig trainee blasted off and torched his rivals with speed. But he shortens stride the farther he goes, and it was glaring in that seventh furlong of the Swale. Gotta Go got up for second, and will be doing his best work late in this rematch around two turns. That said, if Strike Power clears them and allows himself to take a breather for Luis Saez, his speed can be dangerous on this circuit with its short run to the wire at 1 1/16 miles.
4. Marconi is taking the New York-to-Florida page from stablemate Audible’s playbook, but this Todd Pletcher sophomore is a totally different type. The $2 million Tapit half-brother to Mucho Macho Man is bred to thrive with maturity and over a route, unlike the speedily-bred Audible. Hence Marconi has raced exclusively at nine furlongs at Aqueduct, breaking his maiden second time out, and finishing well for third in the Withers (G3). But the next points race in New York, the Gotham, is around a one-turn mile, and that simply won’t work for him. The Fountain of Youth is the next two-turn prep that fits Marconi’s schedule, so voila, Gulfstream it is. Shortening up is a concern, but even more so is his habit of slow or awkward starts, and having to be ridden along to improve on the far turn. Marconi ran green in the stretch of the Withers too, wandering a bit before channeling his momentum into a line straight ahead, and he can’t afford those kinds of rookie mistakes around here. The gray remains a talented prospect going forward, but a minor award appears the best-case scenario in this race.
5. Well-bred maiden winners Machismo and He Takes Charge take the class hike into Derby prep company. While He Takes Charge has the advantage of plenty of two-turn experience over Machismo, who’s yet to race past 6 1/2 furlongs, Machismo’s score was more impressive.
Machismo was initially trained by Pletcher for the partnership of WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, and SF Racing. But after disappointing as the favorite in his first two starts at the Spa last summer, the $500,000 More Than Ready colt made a return trip to the Keeneland sales ring in November and was gaveled down for just $140,000. Now owned by Loooch Racing and Ashley Quartarolo, Machismo has been on an upward curve for new trainer Anthony Quartarolo. Third to former stablemate (and Derby contender) Magnum Moon in his return from a layoff, Machismo took a giant leap forward next time and trounced maidens here on February 3. He’s certainly bred to stretch out, since his dam is by Smart Strike and his second dam is by Sky Classic, and with his juvenile foundation, he may be ready for the challenge. Like the other non-stakes winners in the Fountain of Youth, Machismo gets a six-pound weight break from graded winners Good Magic, Free Drop Billy, and Strike Power.
The Mark Casse-trained He Takes Charge is a Tapit blueblood, with his dam being a Storm Cat half-sister to champion Will Take Charge and Take Charge Indy. As a May 3 foal, he needed five starts to break his maiden, and finally checked that box at this track and trip. He uncorked a sustained run, but the leader was throwing in the towel, and He Takes Charge virtually pulled himself up once clear.