More confusion on the Derby Trail

February, 23, 2014
02/23/14
4:37
PM ET

As the calendar moved a week closer to the Kentucky Derby, a pair of preps on Saturday afternoon illustrated why the Run for the Roses is such a perplexing challenge for handicappers.

Neither the $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream nor the $400,000 Risen Star was won by a favorite. The winners were not unfathomable longshots , yet their victories only added more confusion to a picture that is shrinking much faster than it seems.

The Derby may be more than two months away, but the horses that ran in Saturday's race will most likely make only one more start before the first Saturday of May rolls around, leaving only a small body of work to judge their chances in America's most famous race.

And in both cases, it might take more time and examples than that to draw conclusions that could pay off handsomely on Derby Day.

The Fountain of Youth was won by 9-2 shot Wildcat Red, who prevailed by a head over General a Rod, who should see more action than the New York Yankees' A-Rod this year. The result in the mile-and-a-sixteenth Fountain of Youth, reversed the two horses' finish in the one-mile Gulfstream Derby on Jan. 1.

It also underscored the speed-favoring nature of Gulfstream's main track and how it can allow sprinters like Wildcat Red and General a Rod to get brave at distances that may be beyond their scope at other tracks, like Churchill Downs in early May.

For the most part, the Fountain of Youth was supposed to tell us more about two other horses making their stakes debut, Top Billing and Commissioner.

Top Billing, the 2-1 favorite, turned in the much better performance of the two. After breaking from post 12, he was last after the opening quarter-mile and made up more than 10 lengths on the dueling leaders as he finished third, 2 ¼ lengths behind the winner.

Despite the loss, the Fountain of Youth could move Top Billing forward and much more should be gleaned about him from his next start.

Commissioner finished sixth at 7-2 odds, creating a quandary. Is he the horse who was good enough to beat Top Billing by a neck in a Jan. 3 allowance race, or just a pretender? With only one more prep race left, time is running short to build a positive feeling about him.

At Fair Grounds, Intense Holiday won the Risen Star at 5-1 odds by a nose over Albano.

Despite the loss, the Fountain of Youth could move Top Billing forward and much more should be gleaned about him from his next start.

Intense Holiday has some Triple Crown pedigree as he was third last time out in the Holy Bull to Cairo Prince, the No. 1 contender in ESPN.com's most recent 3-year-old Power Rankings. He was also fourth in the Remsen and Nashua before that.

But the key question is whether he's an improving 3-year-old with Triple Crown potential or a horse lucky enough to face a weak field with $400,000 on the line, and it might take more than one more race to decide on an answer.

Completing the mile and a sixteenth in 1:43.86, a time slower than the 3-year-old filly Untapable needed to win the Rachel Alexandra two races earlier at Fair Grounds, only adds to the confusion.

Albano, the pacesetter in the race, seems to like Fair Grounds as he was third at Churchill Downs in his debut, but then broke his maiden at the New Orleans track before winning the ungraded Sugar Bowl and finishing second in the Lecomte.

The horse who beat Albano in the Lecomte, Vicar's In Trouble, was the 2-1 favorite in the Risen Star, but he may have bounced off his 6 ¾-length win in fast time while racing wide on Saturday.

Hoppertunity, a recent Santa Anita maiden winner for trainer Bob Baffert, and Rise Up, a six-length winner of the Delta Downs Jackpot, finished fourth and seventh, respectively. Perhaps a wide trip hurt Hoppertunity and Rise Up needed the race, yet how many chances will they get to boost their Derby stock? One?

It's confusing, but in an era in which horsemen believe less is more in terms of Derby preps, it's the way of the world.

It may be February, but in terms of learning about Kentucky Derby contenders, time is already beginning to run short.

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.

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