02/18/2015 2:20PM

Upstart in good position on Derby trail

Barbara D. Livingston
Upstart, winner of the Holy Bull Stakes in January, will start Saturday in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. – Read the Footnotes might have been more brilliant, and Samraat maybe had more heart, but of the Kentucky Derby prospects Rick Violette Jr. has trained, none has been in a better position at this point than Upstart, who has both brilliance and heart and currently ranks as the best Kentucky Derby prospect on the East Coast.

Upstart comes off a win in the Holy Bull Stakes last month and will look for a repeat Saturday at Gulfstream Park in the Grade 2, $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes. He was accomplished at 2, when he finished second in the Champagne and third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but has looked like an even better horse so far at age 3 in terms of physicality and performance.

Upstart has allowed Violette to stick with a schedule he thinks will be optimal, not only to have a chance to win the Kentucky Derby on May 2 but also to have a long, productive campaign.

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“The horses who seem to do the best in the Derby and the Triple Crown and go on to have good years at 3 are horses who were able to race,” Violette said Wednesday morning at Palm Meadows, where he keeps a small string of horses during the winter. “It toughens them up if you can run them fairly regularly.”

Violette was standing just outside the stall Upstart occupies in Barn 20. It was a rainy morning here, but Upstart was eager to get his work done with exercise rider Vicki King. Both going to the track and exiting it, Upstart is accompanied by a pony. He’s feeling good.

“You just want to keep them happy and fresh and follow their lead,” Violette said. “If they’re eating and bucking and squealing, those are good indications.”

Upstart officially is listed as dark bay or brown, but on a cold, gray morning, his coat looked nearly black. A generous white blaze runs the length of his face. He has become more developed physically since he was in California for the Breeders’ Cup.

“He’s starting to look like a man,” Violette said.

But Upstart still has some quirks. Violette was planning to send Upstart down to Gulfstream on Thursday for a prerace schooling session in the paddock.

“He’s very inquisitive. He takes everything in,” Violette said. “He got a little warm before we saddled last time, but he got to the paddock, and it was like, ‘Oh, this is my job.’ ”

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Violette said he might even put Upstart on a van Friday for what he called “a trip to nowhere,” reminiscent of what the late Dickie Small used to do with Broad Brush.

“Just go for a ride around here, then come back home, so he realizes getting on a van is no big deal,” Violette said.

Upstart, who is owned by Ralph Evans, has held up to the rigors of the prep season so far. He was given a freshening after the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

“We just let him chill for four weeks, turned him out in the round pen here,” Violette said.

When Upstart started working anew, he got fitter faster than Violette thought he would, which has allowed him to plan for three preps, all at Gulfstream. Violette said Upstart ideally would come back five weeks after this weekend for the Florida Derby at Gulfstream. The other option is to go to New York – where Violette is based for the majority of the year – for the Wood Memorial, which falls six weeks after the Fountain of Youth and four weeks before the Kentucky Derby.

“One thing you can count on here is the weather,” Violette said. “It’s easier for a horse to recover from a race in nice weather, and the five weeks between races is great, so there’s a lot of pluses to staying here.”

At this point, Violette said he’s trying to maintain what he called the “delicate balance” of making sure Upstart continues to progress without hammering on him in his training between races, a concern based on the career-best 106 Beyer Speed Figure he earned in the Holy Bull.

“He was tired after that race for a day and a half, maybe. He hasn’t missed an oat,” Violette said. “I’ve toned it down in terms of his breezes, but he two-minute licked a mile between his two breezes. He’s got a good race under his belt, and there are a few important ones down the road.”

Violette has been down the Derby road before. Samraat finished fifth last year behind winner California Chrome, and Read the Footnotes was seventh behind Smarty Jones in 2004 despite coming out of the race with a fracture he suffered during the race.

“With a half-mile to go, he’s right behind Smarty Jones, and Robby Albarado hadn’t asked him yet,” Violette said. “If you can get me to the half-mile pole right behind the horse to beat, I’ll take my chances every time.”