02/19/2015 1:25PM

Crist: Fountain of Youth’s past has classic look

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If you’re looking for future classic winners, a good place to start is the Fountain of Youth Stakes, which was first run in 1945 and will be renewed Saturday at Gulfstream Park. The 1945 and 1947 editions of the race were for 2-year-olds in December, but all the other runnings – 61 of them, including three years when the race split – have been for 3-year-olds in February or March, and the roll of winners is a strong one.

Five Fountain of Youth winners have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby: Tim Tam (1958), Kauai King (1966), Spectacular Bid (1979), Thunder Gulch (1995), and Orb (2013). Five others ran second or third in the Fountain of Youth and later won the roses at Churchill Downs: Iron Liege (1957), Pleasant Colony (1981), Swale (1984), Unbridled (1990), and Go for Gin (1994).

The race also has produced winners of the Belmont Stakes, including Stephan’s Odyssey, Bet Twice, and Union Rags. Other accomplished Fountain of Youth winners include Proud Truth, Pulpit, and the juvenile champions Copelan, Forty Niner, Fly So Free, and Dehere.

The race was so strong that for a few years starting in the late 1990s, it was elevated to Grade 1 status by the Graded Stakes Committee. This was a triumph of literal-mindedness over common sense: Despite its glittering roster of winners, the Fountain of Youth was and is a prep for a prep (the Florida Derby) for the classics. Right after the upgrade was made, there came a run of mediocre winners of clearly subpar quality, and in 2003, the committee properly knocked the race back down to a Grade 2, its status ever since.

(The Fountain of Youth was one of five races downgraded that year, along with the Spinaway at Saratoga, the Futurity at Belmont, and the San Carlos and San Juan Capistrano at Santa Anita. Of those, only the Spinaway has returned to Grade 1 status.)

The time between the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby has changed radically over the years, reflecting the trend toward fewer preps before the Triple Crown. Tim Tam won the 1958 Florida Derby just 10 days after winning the Fountain of Youth. (He ran seven times as a 3-year-old before the Derby.) This grew to 14 days in Swale’s day, 21 days in Thunder Gulch’s, and now the gap is up to 35 days between Saturday’s renewal of the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby on March 28.

Upstart, a New York-bred ridgling by Flatter, will be a strong favorite Saturday with good reason: He trounced returning rivals Frosted and Bluegrass Singer in the Holy Bull last month, has already run two triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures, and has finished behind only three horses in his career, all of them Grade 1 winners: Daredevil, when Upstart was second in the Champagne, and Texas Red and Carpe Diem when he was third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Merging TV talent

News of the merger between TVG and HRTV, announced Wednesday, has already prompted thousands of comments on news sites and fan forums, and there’s a common theme: While dozens if not hundreds of comments have expressed the hope that TVG retains the best of HRTV’s strong talent roster, I have yet to see a single one hoping for more TVG and less HRTV.

One hopes that TVG, which will be running the new joint operation, is reading those comments. While there of course are talented commentators at both shops, it has become clear to everyone except TVG executives that horseplayers prefer HRTV’s smarter and less-shrill presentation. The two networks have had fundamentally different approaches. TVG has tried to appeal to a novice audience of people who were supposedly going to stumble upon its channel accidentally and somehow become horseplayers. HRTV, on the other hand, has more wisely appealed to existing customers, providing news and information from knowledgeable hosts who do not yell at the customers.

Ideally, the new operation would combine each network’s strengths – HRTV’s talent and tone with TVG’s breadth of coverage and dedication to cover things like international racing and morning workouts during Derby and Breeders’ Cup week. That would be a true merger, with racing fans coming out ahead.