03/02/2009 12:00AM

Fountain of Youth sets up for closing 'Phil'

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NEW YORK - It may still only be the last day of February, but there will be a distinct road to the Kentucky Derby feel about Saturday's stakes action. The two biggest races in the country are the Grade 2, $250,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park and the Grade 3, $200,000 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita. And between them, they attracted five of the 20 3-year-olds listed on Derby Watch.

But the Fountain of Youth and the Sham aren't the only races for 3-year-olds Saturday. Joining them are the $100,000 John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park and the Borderland Derby at Sunland Park. Even the $50,000 sprint features at Laurel (Miracle Wood), Oaklawn Park (Mountain Valley), and Golden Gate (King Glorious) are for 3-year-olds.

Fountain of Youth

This race has a depth of quality not often seen these days in a stepping-stone to the Derby. In This Ones for Phil and Notonthesamepage the race has two of the fastest horses at this stage of their careers in terms of Beyer Speed Figures since Beyer Figures were first published in this paper 17 years ago. It has two Grade 2 stakes winners in Capt. Candyman Can and Beethoven, as well as the Grade 3 stakes winner Break Water Edison. And it has some immensely promising prospects in Theregoesjojo, Quality Road, and Taqarub.

What this race also has is an abundance of early speed. Notonthesamepage, who earned a Beyer of 114 in early January when he romped in the Spectacular Bid over the track, might be the speed of the speed. But I expect him to come under strong pressure at some point down the backstretch or early on the far turn from Quality Road and Taqarub, a battle that should severely diminish the chances of all three.

That could set things up nicely for Capt. Candyman Can, winner of the Hutcheson over the track, or Beethoven, who had a bad setup when he ran fourth in the Holy Bull last time out, but who beat Capt. Candyman Can when he won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes two starts back. I'm skeptical, however, about whether Capt. Candyman Can really can be as effective from off the pace at this level, and I wonder how good Beethoven really is.

This Ones for Phil, a polarizing horse if there ever was one, is the play. Whether you question the accuracy of the 116 Beyer that This Ones for Phil received for winning the Sunshine Millions Dash most recently over the track in his first start for trainer Rick Dutrow, or question what went into enabling this gelding to produce such an implausibly explosive performance, the bottom line is This Ones for Phil is a vastly improved horse. He has the ability to close, which is what you would want with the anticipated pace scenario. He should only enjoy the added distance he gets, and his outside draw means he will likely get a trouble-free stalking trip.

Canadian Turf Stakes

This is the supporting feature at Gulfstream, and it's an interesting betting race because the "name" horse in it is vulnerable, and there is a potentially misleading pace scenario. The "name" horse here is Delightful Kiss, strong winner of the Hal's Hope two starts back, and third as the favorite in the Sunshine Millions last time out. But Delightful Kiss is not nearly as accomplished on turf as he is on the main track, and his connections are merely using this as a prep for next month's Godolphin Mile in Dubai.

As for the pace scenario, there is very little early speed, but that does not mean a closer can't win this. Bujagali and Buddy's Humor are the only two in here who would be comfortable on the lead. But after drawing the outside two posts and with such a short run to the first turn, they're going to have to go early and might wind up going faster than they would like. Besides, they might not be quite good enough, anyway.

I liked Vanquisher last time out when he won the Tallahassee at the distance over the course, and I like him right back. Vanquisher is in career form, as evidenced by the outstanding final quarter-mile he uncorked in the Tallahassee of 21.86 seconds, according to Formulator Web. And even though the Tallahassee was restricted to Florida-breds, the field Vanquisher beat was comparable to the one he meets in this spot.

Sham Stakes

The Pamplemousse might be 2 for 2 around two turns, and he might sport a decisive win on the track last time out in the San Rafael over Grade 1 stakes winner Square Eddie, but he didn't scare many off in this race. In truth, however, it's hard to make a legitimate case for many of the 11 entered against The Pamplemousse Saturday.

One I can make a case for is Mr. Hot Stuff. If you overlook his two starts with blinkers, which also happened to be his two starts on Hollywood Park's Cushion Track, a surface he might not like, Mr. Hot Stuff would have the profile of a colt who just needed a couple of starts before blossoming. That is exactly what he did last time out, posting a going-away route score with a last quarter-mile, according to Formulator Web, in 23.49. And while it is true Mr. Hot Stuff was beating only maidens at Santa Anita that day, the 96 Beyer he earned is actually a point higher than The Pamplemousse's San Rafael.