02/20/2014 12:35PM

Gulfstream Park: Commissioner, Top Billing get rematch in Fountain of Youth Stakes

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Barbara D. Livingston
Commissioner, shown training at Palm Meadows on Sunday, has made three career starts, with two wins and a runner-up finish.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – The Fountain of Youth Stakes on Saturday at Gulfstream Park is worth $400,000, and it’s a Grade 2 event – all that certainly worthwhile in and of itself. But the race carries even more importance in regard to the Kentucky Derby. It’s like having jumbo stone crabs and key lime pie.

The points system used by Churchill Downs to determine the field for the May 3 Kentucky Derby shifts into a higher gear beginning Saturday, with the Fountain of Youth and, at Fair Grounds, the Risen Star. Both stakes are worth 50 points to the winner, 20 for second, 10 for third, and 5 for fourth. Those 50 points essentially guarantee the winner a starting spot in the Derby, which has a maximum of 20 runners.

That is why a bulky field of 13 is entered in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth. And even though there are four stakes winners in the field, it is two lightly raced 3-year-olds making their stakes debuts who are the marquee names.

Commissioner and Top Billing were separated by a neck in a 1 1/8-mile allowance race here Jan. 3. Top Billing came out of that loss to win Jan. 25, while Commissioner, who hadn’t run since August, was pointed directly to the Fountain of Youth. Their rematch – pitting two Derby-winning trainers against each other – makes this a compelling Derby prep 70 days before the first Saturday in May.

“We’ve been focused on this since the allowance win,” Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Commissioner, said Thursday. “It’s rare to back up to a mile and a sixteenth off a mile-and-an-eighth race. I’m totally confident he can handle any distance. He’s a two-turn route horse – a mile and an eighth, a mile and a quarter, a mile and a half are all well within him.”

Commissioner drew the rail. Top Billing, by contrast, landed post 12, which could prove problematic with a short run to the first turn, though his trainer, Shug McGaughey, said he was “not really bothered by it.”

“With this horse, I’d rather be there than down on the rail,” McGaughey said. “I’m not saying I like it. I’d rather be in [post] 6 or 7. He doesn’t have speed. If he was inside, he’d have to rush away from there to not get squeezed.”

[Fountain of Youth: Get PPs, watch Saturday's card live]

It’s up to jockey Joel Rosario to work out a trip on Top Billing.

“Hopefully, he can save a little ground. I don’t want him out in those tents,” McGaughey said, referring to the barns on the clubhouse turn. “He might use him down the backside to put him in position. If you ask him, he’ll give it. He likes a target.”

Another rematch pits General a Rod against Wildcat Red. Those two were first and second, separated by a head, in the Gulfstream Park Derby, a one-turn, one-mile race on New Year’s Day. General a Rod hasn’t raced since. Wildcat Red came back Feb. 1 with a powerful win in the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes.

Mike Maker, trainer of General a Rod, said he thought it was smart to await the Fountain of Youth rather than run in the Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 25.

“Running in the Holy Bull would have been cramming a whole lot into a short amount of time,” Maker said Thursday. “He came out of the Gulfstream Park Derby well, and the time seems to have done him well. We’ve got a lot of confidence.”

[DRF Live: Get live reports and handicapping insights from DRF writers and handicappers this Saturday]

Like General a Rod, Wildcat Red will be making his first start around two turns. He has never finished worse than second in five starts and crushed his rivals in the Hutcheson. Javier Castellano rode him that day but chose General a Rod for the Fountain of Youth.

Almost Famous is looking to bounce back after finishing fourth in the Holy Bull. Our Caravan was eighth in the Holy Bull, his lone start since a debut maiden win here Dec. 14.

Pletcher also sends out We Miss Artie, who has won on synthetic in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity and on turf but has yet to win on dirt. He was seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on dirt, and in his only start since, he was second by a head in the Kitten’s Joy Stakes on turf Jan. 19.

“He’s just trained too well on dirt to not try again,” Pletcher said of We Miss Artie, a son of Artie Schiller. “He’s always trained well on dirt, but with his pedigree, we leaned toward running him on turf.

“After he won the Breeders’ Futurity, we went to the Breeders’ Cup. We changed his style because of the track. He loomed up, and he was only beaten four lengths. He’s had two exceptionally good works on dirt since the Kitten’s Joy.”

Medal Count, Casiguapo, C. Zee, Best Plan Yet, Hesinfront, and East Hall complete the field.

[Clocker Reports: Get Mike Welsch’s clocker reports from Gulfstream Park and Palm Meadows]

The Fountain of Youth is the 11th race on a 12-race card that begins at 12:40 p.m. Eastern. Preceding it are two stakes, the Grade 2 Davona Dale for 3-year-old fillies and the Grade 3 Canadian Turf for grass milers.