03/04/2017 8:42PM

Gunnevera bides his time en route to impressive Fountain of Youth win

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Coglianese Photos
Gunnevera, ridden by Javier Castellano, wins the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes by 5 3/4 lengths.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Javier Castellano learned his lesson. Four weeks ago, in the Holy Bull, the four-time reigning champion jockey said he was too impatient with Gunnevera and believed he cost the colt his best chance. So, in the Grade 2, $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Saturday, Castellano was focused on taking his time before striking.

He aced the test. Gunnevera, given a patient ride by Castellano and benefitting from a swift early pace over a fast but dull surface, rallied for a runaway, 5 3/4-length victory in the Fountain of Youth, a race in which the favored Irish War Cry, the Holy Bull winner, faded to finish seventh, the latest favorite to falter – see Classic Empire, Mo Town, El Areeb – in recent Kentucky Derby preps.

Practical Joke, making his first start since the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, outfinished pacesetter Three Rules for second. Talk Logistics was another six lengths back in fourth, then came Lookin for Eight, Quinientos, Irish War Cry, Takaful, Made You Look, and Huracan Americo, who broke down and had to be euthanized.

Beasley was scratched in order to run in the Tampa Bay Derby next Saturday.

Gunnevera ($10.40) completed 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.25. He was aided by a sharp early pace set by Three Rules, who went the opening half-mile in 47.18 seconds. Three Rules was able to put away Irish War Cry, but first Practical Joke made a bold brush on the far turn, and then Gunnevera made his run. Gunnevera entered the lane outside Three Rules, who was on the rail, and Practical Joke, who was between runners, and bounded clear.

“Last time, I was a little too close to the pace,” Castellano said of the Holy Bull, in which he finished second. “It was too much last time. I learned my lesson. It paid off today. I could have chased the pace, but he won’t finish. There was a lot of speed today. I could take my time. The way it set up was perfect.

“At the three-eighths, he started picking them off. Last time, I tried to save some ground, and I had to check.” This time, Castellano kept Gunnevera in the clear, “and when he switched leads, he just exploded,” Castellano said.

“He’s maturing, maturing every time. He’s an old pro, like a 6-year-old.”

Gunnevera needed to maintain his composure after the race because the winner’s circle was chaotic, with winning trainer Antonio Sano receiving congratulations from seemingly everyone he’s ever met. Sano, based at Gulfstream Park West – a.k.a. Calder – and with one of the largest barns on this circuit, was confident the race shape of the Fountain of Youth would benefit Gunnevera.

“Last race, when he lost, he got bumped into the rail,” he said. “I knew he’d run big today. There’s was more speed.”

Sano said Gunnevera would return in the Grade 1 Florida Derby at Gulfstream on April 1. Both Sano and Castellano are natives of Venezuela, but they had never met until their careers brought them to the United States.

“I had heard of him because he would win training titles at one track, 19, 20 in a row, something crazy like that,” Castellano said.

Gunnevera, owned by Peacock Racing Stables, is a colt by Dialed In who has now won four times in eight starts. Last year, his wins included the Grade 3 Delta Downs Jackpot and the Grade 2 Saratoga Special. With the points he has earned in the Delta Jackpot plus his runner-up effort in the Holy Bull, combined with the 50 points he received for the Fountain of Youth, Gunnevera is safely in the field for the Kentucky Derby on May 6 at Churchill Downs.

Chad Brown, the trainer of Practical Joke, was happy with his colt’s comeback effort.

“He’s in play now, he has a race under his belt, he should move forward off it,” said Brown, who said “everything is on the table” regarding a final Kentucky Derby prep for Practical Joke.

“A lot depends on how the horse is training, who’s running where,” Brown said. “I think my horse made that big run into the turn, and he’s probably feeling the layoff a little bit. And a combination with Gunnevera really running a blinder. He was very dominant today.”

Irish War Cry was very disappointing. He had won all three of his prior starts, including the Holy Bull, but faltered badly in the final three furlongs.

“I wish maybe he settled a little more off the pace, perhaps, but I don’t want to make any excuses,” said his trainer, Graham Motion. “It looked like he was going pretty nicely. I can't really say what happened. He looked good, he looked fine. My instant first reaction is probably I ran him back too quick. It's hard to know. He’s done so well since his last start.”

– additional reporting by Mike Welsch