Kentucky Derby prospects are starting to make their way through the rigorous process that owners and trainer hope will lead to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. But it will take a while longer to bring the Derby puzzle into alignment.
The aftermath of Saturday's Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, for example, was a little like the mid stages of a poker game: one winner counting his chips and a bunch of losers sitting around muttering, "Shut up and deal."
By contrast, after Sunday's Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, there was one winner -- Badge of Silver, by 10 lengths -- and the game appeared over unless some new shooters belly up to the table.
Trust N Luck, a Montbrook colt who shipped all the way from Calder, ran off with the Fountain of Youth -- the year's first Grade I event for 3-year-olds. When no one came with a challenge, jockey Cornelio Velasquez let his mount relax and he won by 5 1/4 lengths over Supah Blitz. Midway Cat held on for third.
The three favorites -- Offlee Wild, Whywhywhy and Ten Cents a Shine -- finished in that order behind the top three, with Conservation and D. Wayne Lukas's California shipper Ozzie Cat bringing up the rear.
Trust N Luck now is 3-for-4 around two turns and 5-for-9 in his career. The Fountain of Youth was his first race anywhere other than Calder. Trainer Ralph Ziadie said Sunday his colt "came out of the race in super shape and was doing very well this morning." He said he doesn't believe Trust N Luck needs to have the lead to run well, although he has in all three of his route wins.
"Our plan all along was to run him in the Florida Derby and it hasn't changed," Ziadie added. "That will be his next start and then we'll see about the Kentucky Derby."
Several of the losers also are still thinking about the Derby trail -- partly because Trust N Luck had things all his own was on Saturday, partly because the track allegedly was speed-favoring, partly because some of their steeds had woes of their own.
Ten Cents A Shine, the favorite, "has a bad lung infection," said trainer Ken McPeek. "I still think the Florida Derby is a possibility." Midway Cat, who used a lot of energy on the turn, "got a little tired in the stretch," said trainer Rick Hiles. "I'll probably give him another shot in the Florida Derby." Offlee Wild worked 5 furlongs in 57 2/5 seconds just days before the Fountain but trainer T.V. Smith said that wasn't the problem, adding "The Florida Derby is still a good possibility."
Trainer Manny Tortora said Supah Blitz "is a come-from-behind horse and he really had no chance to run down the winner. First, nobody ran with Trust N Luck and, secondly, the track was very fast and that's conducive to speed horses and not horses that come from behind like my colt." He added, "I'd like to take a shot at the Florida Derby."
They'll deal that hand on March 15.
The Louisiana Derby is six days before that and, based on Sunday's $150,000 Risen Star Stakes, they'll have to import some new talent to challenge Badge of Silver. The son of Silver Deputy, making just his third lifetime start, settled outside pace-setting Saintly Look through the early furlongs, kicked into gear entering the stretch and finished the 1 1/16 mile in 1:42.99 -- just .01 seconds off the stakes record set by Zarb's Magic seven years ago.
"He was crying to run the whole race," said winning jockey Robby Albarado. "He just relaxed for me and I felt I had a lot of horse from start to finish. You have to think since he finished so strong that he should get a little added distance."
Lone Star Sky was second and Defrere's Vixen was third.
Trainer Ronny Werner said Badge of Silver, a son of Silver Deputy, "is the kind of horse you wake up in the morning to train." The colt won his first start at Keeneland last spring by 9 lengths, then sat out the rest of the year with an injury. He came back to win his 3-year-old debut at Fair Grounds on Jan. 23 by 7 lengths, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 108.
In other Derby preps:
--Trainer Bob Baffert, who has lost Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Vindication from Derby contention because of injury, said he is thinking about preparing Juvenile Fillies runner-up Composure against the boys on the first Saturday in May. "I'm not going to make the call until that week or a couple of weeks out," Baffert said Friday at Santa Anita. "
--Watch out for Lion Tamer, a son of Will's Way who had things all his own way in Saturday's $150,000, 7-furlong Hutcheson Stakes. With John Velazquez along for the ride, Lion Tamer sat behind Crafty Guy early, took over on the turn and won easily by 6 lengths. "It looks like he may be a special horse and we'll have to stretch him out now," said trainer Todd Pletcher. "I don't know where he will run next but I wouldn't rule out the Florida Derby or the Louisiana Derby or any other race at this time."
--And on Saturday's Gulfstream undercard, Region of Merit rolled home a 5-lengths winner in a 1 mile, 70 yard allowance race for non-winners of two "other than." The Touch Gold colt, with Eibar Coa up for trainer Christophe Clement, finished in 1:42.32. Region of Merit is owned by Calumet Farm.
--At Sam Houston Race Park in Texas, Call Me Lefty left seven rivals in the dust in Saturday's $75,000 Texas Stallion Stakes. The gelded son of Aggie Southpaw dealt with an early challenge from Crab Creek, then dominated the rest of the race, winning by 8 lengths. Call Me Lefty finished the 1 1/16 mile in 1:48.15 on a track rated "good."
Kentucky Oaks preps
--Belle of Perintown was beaten 30 lengths in her last start, the Tiffany Lass. But trainer Eddie Kenneally figured that was because the filly was so fractious in the starting gate that day that she had no chance when the race began. Kenneally was proved right when the Dehere filly behaved herself before Saturday's $150,000 Silverbulletday Stakes at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, survived a sound bump at the start and took off in the final furlong to win by 8 1/4 lengths over Afternoon Dreams. Rebridled Dreams was third and the favorite, Allspice, was a bland fifth. As a bonus to her backers, Belle of Perintown returned $22.40 for a $2 win ticket after finishing 1 1/16 mile in 1:44.48. "I was just concerned with her mental state after the last race," the trainer said. "But I think the question has been answered."
--Lucky Sabre won a tough stretch battle with Tale of a Dream in Saturday's $60,000 Vallejo Stakes at Golden Gate Fields in northern California. With only four starters, jockey Russell Baze kept Lucky Sabre behind the early pace, went to the lead on the turn and hung on. Lucky Sabre, a daughter of Lucky North, got the 1 mile on a "good" track in 1:36.28. "She's just a tiny little thing but she wants to run and wants to win," Baze said. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said he doesn't know where the filly will race next.
--Lady Mallory overcame traffic troubles on the turn for home in Saturday's $75,000 Texas Stallion Stakes at Sam Houston and still managed to win going away, by 5 1/2 lengths over Hay Allison. The Leo Castilli filly finished in 1:48.82 as the even-money fave.
In other weekend racing:
Sam Houston Race Park
Candid Glen pulled a minor upset in Saturday's $200,000 John B. Connally Breeders' Cup Turf Handicap. The 6-year-old son of El Gran Senor settled in mid-pack through the first half mile, rallied between horses in mid-stretch and won by 1 1/2 lengths over Red Mountain. Dynameaux was third and the favorite, Green Fee, had no rally and got home ninth. Gandid Glen, toting E.J. Perrodin, finished the 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:53.21.
The Connally anchored an evening of stakes, which also included a pair for 3-year-olds.
In the $50,000 Sam Houston Turf Sprint Handicap, Testify came from last with a four-wide rally to win by 3/4 length over Wudantunoit. Ski Bum was third. Testify, a 6-year-old son of Pembroke, ran 5 furlongs on the grass in 59.11 seconds. And Presumed Innocent also came from off the pace to win the $50,000 Jersey Lilly Stakes for fillies and mares by 3 lengths over Sound of Gold, with Distant Valley third. Presumed Innocent, a 6-year-old daughter of Shuailaan, finished the 1 1/16 mile on the green course in 1:46.14.
The Tin Man was all heart in Saturday's $200,000 San Luis Obispo Handicap, leding from gate to wire and scoring by 9 1/2 lengths over Special Matter. Harrisand was third. The Tin Man, a 5-year-old Affirmed gelding, ran 1 1/2 miles on firm turf in 2:31.22 for Mike Smith. "He is such a cool horse," Smith said. "He really loves what he does. He was just galloping out there, having fun." Trainer Richard Mandella said he may run The Tin Man back in the remaining distance turf races at Santa Anita, then give him a rest before the $2 million Breeders' Cup Turf. He finished fourth in that race in 2002 at Arlington after leading much of the way on a yielding course. This year's Breeders' Cup Championships are at... gee, Santa Anita.
Sunday, Starrer had no trouble besting four rivals in the $200,000 Santa Maria Handicap for fillies and mares. The 5-year-old Dynaformer mare raced just behind the early speed through the backstretch, went for the lead on the turn and won by 4 1/2 lengths over You. Rhiana was third. With Pat Valenzuela up, Starrer ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:42.75. "I was very lucky to keep her calm in the first part because she was very keen to go on," said Valenzuela. "So I brought her back a couple of lengths off the pace and at that point I knew I could put her anywhere I wanted."
In Saturday's $100,000 Boo La Boo Stakes for 3-year-old Cal-bred fillies, Long Term Wish only had a short-term lead. But she had it at the right time -- on the wire. The daughter of Souvenir Copy came from last of 11 and outfinished My Kai for the big check. Market Garden was third and Humorous Lady was a facing fourth as the favorite.
Tampa Bay Downs
Burning Roma hit the grass running. In his turf debut, the 5-year-old son of Rubiano surged through the stretch in Saturday's $100,000 Tampa Breeders' Cup to win by 5 lengths over Tour Of The Cat. First Lieutenant was third. Burning Roma, with Jesus Castanon up, was all the more impressive as he was coming off a 102-day layoff. "This was his first time ever on turf and he obviously loves it," said winning trainer Heather Giglio. "At least, he did today. This win opens a lot of spots for us." Owner Harold Queen said one of those options might be the grassy, $700,000 Explosive Bid Handicap at Fair Grounds in a little more than a month. Burning Roma and Tour Of The Cat dueled for the lead until the field hit the top of the stretch, when the race ceased being a contest. "It's almost better when someone hooks him early," Giglio said. "It keeps his attention."
Man From Wicklow was too much for nine rivals in Sunday's $200,000 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap, rallying from a close-up position to win by 4 3/4 lengths at the line. Just Listen and Sardaukar completed the trifecta. Man From Wicklow, a 6-year-old son of Turkoman, ran 1 3/8 mile on firm turf in 2:11.62 for Jerry Bailey. He is owned and trained by Richard Violette Jr. "He broke well and didn't get shuffled back, which really helped" said Bailey. "We could have gone on anytime but, because he didn't get shuffled back, we were only 4 or 5 lengths behind instead of 7 or 8." Violette said Man From Wicklow may run back in the 1 1/2-mile Pan American on March 22.
Harmony Lodge dueled for the lead early in Saturday's $100,000 Shirley Jones Handicap, then worked clear in the stretch to win by 3 lengths over Gold Mover. Nonsuch Bay finished third. Harmony Lodge, a 4-year-old Hennessy filly, got the 7 furlongs in 1:22.35. "We broke on top so I just let her go and she was game the whole way," said winning rider John Velazquez.
Golden Gate Fields
Lacie Girl was just up in the final strides to win Sunday's $60,000 Richmond Handicap by a head over Onslaught. Fertile was third. Lacie Girl, a 4-year-old daughter of Editor's Note, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.25. "I had to ride her hard all the way," said winning jockey Russell Baze. "That's just the way she is."
Red n'Gold blew by pace-setting Eagle Lake turning for home in Saturday's $50,000 Pippin Stakes for fillies and mares, then held on to beat Reason to Talk by 1/2 length. McKinney was third. Red n'Gold ran the 1 1/16 mile on a muddy track in 1:48.35. "She loves the going and Oaklawn Park," said winning trainer Robert Holthus. "She tried to pull herself up there late, but got started again." Holthus said Red n'Gold, a 5-year-old daughter of Tabasco Cat, may be bred later this spring.
Grimm got a fairy-tale trip to win Saturday's $50,000 Coyote Handicap by 1 1/2 lengths over Gotta Go to Work. Expert was third. Grimm, a well-named 4-year-old son of Hansel, emerged from a three-horse duel early, turned back Classic Sheikh and then cruised home in 1:08.63.
Valid Pulpit moved through the field on the turn in Saturday's $50,000 El Paso Times Handicap, then got to the front a sixteenth out and won by 3 lengths over Isit Still Legal. Manzotti Queen was third. Valid Pulpit, a 3-year-old Pulpit filly, got 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:15.65.
Self Flit turned back a late challenge from Bowmans Crossing to win Sunday's Hong Kong Classic Mile by a head. Self Flit enjoyed a ground-saving trip on the rail while Bowmans Crossing, the odds-on favorite, got a bad break and a tough trip. Winning trainer Ivan Allan said he hopes Self Flit will have enough stuffing to stay the 2000 meters of the March 23 Hong Kong Derby. "There is plenty of stamina on both sides of his pedigree and he does things right in his races," Allan said. Saturday's companion event, the Shek Leo Pui Stakes, went to Himalaya, who also may be a Derby contender.