02/23/2014 1:06PM

Fountain of Youth, Risen Star, and Other Thoughts

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The road to the Triple Crown took a serious turn on Saturday. The Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream and the Risen Star at Fair Grounds were penultimate Kentucky Derby preps, offering five times the Derby points previously available in any prior prep race for this crop. But if you came into the day looking for some clarity, you probably went home disappointed.

At face value, the Fountain of Youth was a very entertaining race featuring two colts in Wildcat Red and General a Rod who knocked heads from the start through strong fractions, neither giving an inch to the wire, with Wildcat Red gaining a narrow decision. The problem is, what would have otherwise been an exhibition of courage was clouded, maybe even diminished, by the way Gulfstream’s main track played.

Like everyone else, I saw a lot of speed winners on dirt earlier on Saturday’s Gulfstream card, but I did not feel there was a track bias. Social Inclusion upset the first dirt race of the day in front-running fashion, but he was a fast-working first time starter. Normandy Invasion came from a little off the pace to win the next dirt race, although, in fairness, he had such an enormous class edge over his field that he could have easily been a bias-buster.

Global Strike won the next dirt race on the lead, but he was 3-5. Constitution won the next dirt race on the engine, but he was also the favorite. And so was Onlyforyou, who led all the way in the Davona Dale. There were a lot of speed winners, but they all strongly figured. I really couldn’t think of one horse the Gulfstream main track carried beyond his or her capabilities Saturday, which is one of the most important requirements to fulfill before anyone starts throwing the bias word around.

Until the Fountain of Youth.

Taking nothing away from Wildcat Red and General a Rod as racehorses, but neither had been two turns before Saturday. With the way they went after each other through fractions that were significantly faster than the other three dirt routes on the card, and given their complete lack of two-turn foundation, you would have expected that under normal conditions, at least one of the other 10 starters would have overtaken them. But with the way Wildcat Red and General a Rod kept going and going beyond reasonable expectations given how the race was run, it was the compelling piece of evidence that conditions weren’t normal. The Fountain of Youth, taken in conjunction with what transpired earlier, was enough to proclaim a speed bias. That’s why the Fountain of Youth outcome was inconclusive, and why Top Billing is getting a lot of (deserved) credit for going against the grain of the track, and rallying from last of 12 to be third, beaten only two lengths.

The Risen Star, at least, was run on a fair Fair Grounds main track. But while Intense Holiday and Albano put on a nice show separating themselves from the rest of the Risen Star field, it’s frankly difficult being enthused about the potential impact of this race going forward.

For one, the Risen Star was run in 22 one-hundredths of a second slower than fillies went in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes a little more than an hour earlier. Yes, I know that Untapable freaked in the Rachel Alexandra. Still, even though these two stakes had comparable early paces, the Risen Star was the slower race. Also, Albano, who came out on the short end of the win photo, fell into a much easier early lead than anyone figured to get.

It could be said that the big thing to take from Intense Holiday’s narrow decision in the Risen Star is that it was a big boost to Cairo Prince’s Holy Bull victory. Despite breaking from post 11, Intense Holiday had a three-wide trip in the Holy Bull that was not in any way more difficult than the trip Cairo Prince pulled, and yet all he could do was finish a distant third. But I would feel a little better about this line of thinking if you didn’t need a search warrant at the finish of the Fountain of Youth to find the three horses who came out of the Holy Bull (Our Caravan, Best Plan Yet, and Almost Famous), bias or not.

Some quick Saturday thoughts:

At the time, I was very taken with Constitution’s decisive victory in that loaded allowance route earlier in the Gulfstream card. In retrospect, given the conclusion of a speed bias, you have to look at his performance with a more critical eye. Nevertheless, I still think Constitution is a good one. And Tonalist and Mexikoma deserve some bonus points for their second and third place efforts.

I’m not crazy about a horse getting credit for a track record a couple of hours after the race is run, as was the case in Normandy Invasion’s corrected time comeback romp. Still, all you needed were your eyes to see that Normandy Invasion has monster potential, which is not exactly news considering the compelling case that could be made that he was decidedly best when fourth in last year’s Kentucky Derby. Anyway, I’d love to see Normandy Invasion target a meeting with Lea in the Met Mile, and maybe go after Mucho Macho Man, Will Take Charge, and Lea in the Whitney.

As noted, Untapable ran out of her mind in the Rachel Alexandra. I know horses can improve dramatically from 2 to 3, but Untapable’s performance Saturday was so many levels better than anything she did last year, that it’s natural to want to see her do it again, for confirmation. As for Ria Antonia, her ineffective fourth in the Rachel Alexandra only made her upset first via disqualification in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies look more fluky. She has to step it up, and soon.

In contrast to Untapable, Onlyforyou was only so so winning the Davona Dale. Onlyforyou is now 4 for 4 and a two-time Grade 2 stakes winner, but it does seem as though that is greatly due to her catching the right fields so far.