Wildcat Red zipped into the winner's circle, Intense Holiday charged in as if he heard the dinner gong and they both landed in ESPN.com's latest Power Rankings for the Triple Crown. But it's Cairo Prince who remains atop the Top 10, and he's likely to stay there at least until March 15, when Honor Code makes his seasonal debut, and possibly until March 29, when the Holy Bull Stakes winner races again, in the Florida Derby, and maybe until May 3, when the most bejeweled series in sports, the Triple Crown, begins with the Kentucky Derby.
Although Wildcat Red won Saturday's Fountain of Youth Stakes, and even though the winning time (1:41.85) was strong, Top Billing probably made the biggest splash by finishing third. Yes, Wildcat Red flashed uncommon speed, and, yes, he held on tenaciously despite having to eyeball General A Rod for the entire 1 1/16 miles. But in the context of the day's races at Gulfstream Park, Top Billing actually gave the better performance.
That's why his trainer, Shug McGaughey, said he wasn't disappointed with the stretch-running colt's effort or finish. "I think he's going in the right direction," McGaughey said.
It was viciously simple Saturday at Gulfstream Park: To win, you either had to grab the early lead or you had to set a track record. The surface there has been ridiculously fast, track records have been falling like Congressional approval ratings and the early lead has become the key to the liquor cabinet. Get that and get happy.
Wildcat Red, like four other winners Saturday, got it. Horses that led throughout won five of the six races on Gulfstream Park's main track. (Actually, Wildcat Red and General A Rod raced head-and-head, eyeball-to-eyeball, early in the race, with first one and then the other putting a head in front, and that's exactly how they finished at the wire, with Wildcat Red winning by a head.) The only winner who didn't have an early lead was Normandy Invasion, who raced three lengths back after the opening half-mile but rallied to win by nearly eight lengths while setting a track record (1:33.13) for a mile.
So why was Top Billing's race so good? After an opening quarter-mile, he trailed by 13 lengths. In other words, on that speed-happy surface and on that scoot-and-boot day, Top Billing had about as much chance as a marshmallow at a Girl Scout campfire. But he ran third, advancing strongly in the second turn and then angling out at the top of the stretch to finish just two lengths behind the top pair. He made up 11 lengths on the leaders, which at Gulfstream on Saturday was tantamount to coming back from the grave. If the race had been run at, say, Churchill Downs, would he have won? Well, let's just say he gave a performance that suggested he's going to do well down the road.
Meanwhile, in New Orleans, Intense Holiday rallied four-to-five wide in the second turn and then charged down the stretch like a marauder to win the Risen Star Stakes by a nose over Albano, the early leader. After easy early fractions, Albano was still strong; he didn't capitulate. He simply got outrun by an improving colt who finally got an answer to all his questions. It was a breakout effort for the winner, who had been unable to overcome unfavorable circumstances in recent races. And with his strong finish, he, too, indicated he could arrive in Kentucky as one of the top contenders.
"There's a lot of room to improve and a lot of room to grow," Mike Smith said in the winner's circle after riding Intense Holiday to victory at Fair Grounds. "What I really liked was at the end galloping out. After I stopped him -- you can tell when a 3-year-old has had enough -- he took one breath and came back."
Intense Holiday indeed galloped out strongly, and his Hall of Fame jockey said he didn't "get to the bottom," meaning there was some energy and eagerness left in the long-bodied colt's tank. Intense Holiday's connections said the son of Harlan's Holiday probably will make his next start March 29 in the Louisiana Derby.
1. Cairo Prince
After Cairo Prince worked an easy half-mile in 49.90 seconds Saturday at Palm Meadows in Florida, his trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, said, "All is well." Still, having skipped the Fountain of Youth, he could find himself in need of some Derby points when he makes his next start, in the Florida Derby. And although his victory in last month's Holy Bull Stakes was dominant -- he easily drew away to finish nearly six lengths clear of a threat -- skepticism warns he might not be at his best as the distances stretch out. Beyond the wire in the Holy Bull, Cairo Prince looked spent, and the horses that finished immediately behind him -- Conquest Titan, Intense Holiday and Almost Famous -- all galloped out beyond the winner. And then there's the not-very-small matter of pedigree. Cairo Prince's dam, Holy Bubbette, was strictly a sprinter, winning two minor stakes at three-quarters of a mile, but never winning beyond that distance. Still, he's comfortably atop the Power Rankings for now and possibly until May, when he could go to Kentucky as the Derby favorite.
2. Honor Code
Honor Code was expected to make his seasonal debut last Saturday in the Fountain of Youth. But bruised ankles forced him to miss some training, which in turn forced his trainer to move back the Remsen winner's return to competition. And so now he's playing catch-up. Since resuming serious activity, Honor Code has had two workouts, the latest a half-mile (49.71 seconds) at Gulfstream on Feb. 19. His trainer, Shug McGaughey, has identified the Rebel Stakes on March 15 at Oaklawn Park as the objective. Still, that means Honor Code is on a tight schedule. Super Saver didn't make his seasonal debut until March 13 and Street Sense until March 17, and both, of course, went on to win the Kentucky Derby. But the late start for Honor Code means there's no longer any such thing as a minor issue or setback. At this point, everything is major.
3. Candy Boy
Candy Boy's victory in the Robert Lewis Stakes ranks as one of the most impressive of the season. He rated behind the speedsters, angled out in the stretch and responded powerfully when asked. Afterward, his Hall of Fame jockey, Gary Stevens, allowed the colt to gallop out freely, and Candy Boy seemed tireless. He's improving, and distance doesn't seem to matter to him. He'll probably make his next start in the Santa Anita Derby, and after that he could arrive in Kentucky as the foremost contender from the West, or maybe the Derby favorite.
His actual birthday is May 3, which also happens to be Derby Day. In other words, he's a late foal and so a few months behind most of these in terms of development. But he's starting to find himself and approach his potential. It's almost as if this is November for him, and the Southwest Stakes was his Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He won by more than four lengths. As Steve Asmussen, his trainer, pointed out, the win represented another significant step forward for the handsome chestnut colt, who might be counted on to continue improving through the Triple Crown.
5. Top Billing
Top Billing finished third while making his stakes debut in the Fountain of Youth, but he gave a bravura performance. The son of Curlin had no chance on the speed-favoring Gulfstream surface, but rallied strongly nonetheless. His trainer, Shug McGaughey, said he'd like to come back with Top Billing in the Florida Derby, where he'll need to pick up some Derby points. But will Gulfstream still be handing out free passes to speedsters?
6. Strong Mandate
Strong Mandate and Lady Luck aren't on good terms. Some of it is his fault, and some of it -- well, you be the judge. When he made his seasonal debut in the Southwest Stakes, he missed the break -- OK, that's his fault -- but then he got bumped leaving the gate; by the time he got his legs under him, he had to race four-wide in the first turn. When he advanced down the backstretch, he ran into an opening that closed like a slammed door on his arrival. He checked, dropped back to last and then charged again. After racing four-to-five wide the entire journey, he still finished second. It was like Top Billing's Fountain of Youth, deceptively good. If Lady Luck and Strong Mandate reconcile, he could prepare a rude welcome for Honor Code in the Rebel.
7. Intense Holiday
Intense Holiday grew up in New Orleans, or maybe he just figured out why he's running in circles, but whatever the reason his victory in the Risen Star Stakes put him among the leaders on the road to Kentucky. It was a solid performance; even more, it was promising. After the wire, he galloped out strongly while pricking his ears as if to suggest that he not only enjoyed the experience, but that he's eager for more. The long stretch at Fair Grounds plays to his strength, and his connections indicated he'll probably make his next start March 29 in the Louisiana Derby.
8. Shared Belief
Because a problematic foot cost him some important training time, the unbeaten champion juvenile of 2013 hasn't had a published workout since Jan. 3, and so with each passing day his being ready for the Kentucky Derby becomes increasingly doubtful. Although he has gone from Santa Anita to Northern California to resume training, he's far behind at this point. He's enormously talented, as he proved with his romp in the CashCall Futurity, and every fan will welcome his return, but that might not come until April.
Here's another whose birthday is Derby Day. He has raced only twice, and so in terms of experience he's far behind some of these. But he's very talented. Bayern's recent win at Santa Anita was very unusual, and not just because he won by 15 lengths. He also ran the final quarter-mile of the one-mile race faster than he ran the first (24.03 seconds, 23.74 seconds, 24.00 seconds and 24.00 seconds). And in doing that, he had to remind some observers of another flashy colt trained by Bob Baffert, Bodemeister. In February of 2012, he won the second start of his career, also at Santa Anita, by more than nine lengths. Two races later he won the Arkansas Derby before finishing second in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Monday at Santa Anita, Bayern worked five-eighths of a mile in 59.80 seconds.
10. Wildcat Red
Is he just a splash in the Fountain? Maybe. Wildcat Red never has raced anywhere but Gulfstream Park, which is to speedsters what Tropicana Field is to dead-pull hitters. In winning the Fountain of Youth, he took advantage of a racing surface that has been extraordinarily fast on a day when it was handing out Go-Directly-To-The-Winners-Circle cards to almost everybody who made the early lead. Would he have won against the same group at, say, Churchill Downs, or Pimlico or Belmont? Maybe. Only one horse, General A Rod, ever has finished in front of him. And the General was a head back in the Fountain of Youth. Wildcat Red is undeniably talented and capable. But will he be able to carry his speed around two turns anywhere else? That question, since he's likely to make his next start in the Florida Derby, probably won't be answered until May 3.
Also receiving votes: Midnight Hawk (20), General A Rod (19), Conquest Titan (14), Samraat (13), California Chrome (10), Rise Up (7), Tamarando (7), Mexikoma (6), Commissioner (6), Albano (5), Bond Holder (5), Harpoon (4), Havana (5), Noble Moon (4), Red Mandate (4), Vicar's In Trouble (4), Bobby's Kitten (3), Chitu (3), Giovanni Boldini (3), Kristo (3), Constitution (2).
To see how our experts voted, please click here.