03/04/2018 11:44AM

Watchmaker: Pressure on Good Magic to do better


There are excellent performances in defeat, perhaps best epitomized by Seattle Slew’s remarkable effort in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup:

Seattle Slew broke through the gate before the start, had his rider briefly lose an iron on the first turn, engaged in a speed duel with fellow Triple Crown winner Affirmed (who was a total run-off because his saddle slipped), producing fractions of 22 3/5 seconds and 45 1/5 that were insane for the 1 1/2-mile distance, ducked out so sharply in the stretch that it was darn close to a bolt, giving the lead to Exceller in the process, yet came back on to miss by a nose.

Good Magic’s third-place finish in Saturday’s Fountain of Youth Stakes was not one of these.

Yes, you can make the case that the Fountain of Youth was merely a means to an end for last year’s champion 2-year-old male. The Fountain of Youth was, after all, Good Magic’s first start since his runaway victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (which was his first win in his third career start), and the first of two planned preps to have him at his peak for the Kentucky Derby.

Good Magic is still a very comfortable third in the Derby points standings with 34, a number that is extremely likely to be enough to ensure a Derby start should the race oversubscribe – “should” the race oversubscribe? What am I thinking! – so there is no reason to get worked up over a loss on Saturday that might ultimately prove to be a tiny hiccup in the greater scheme of things.

All of that is true. And in this case, I think all of that is beside the point.

Unless you want to invoke the old excuse of “he didn’t like the track,” which I suspect might apply about 5 percent of the time it is used, it is just downright difficult to be inspired by the way Good Magic performed Saturday. He pulled an absolutely perfect stalking trip, sitting two lengths behind Promises Fulfilled, whose previous claim to fame was a third in the slowly run and until the Fountain of Youth increasingly negative-key-race-looking Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, and who was hard-sent from his outside post to clear with the lead. Good Magic sat less than that off Strike Power, a very talented colt who was a huge question mark going two turns.

Yet despite this ideal setup, it was obvious leaving the mid-point of the far turn that Good Magic was empty and had zero to offer, and he actually gave ground to the top two in the run to the wire.

Right here, let’s note that the Fountain of Youth looked like a conveyor-belt race with the top three finishers virtually going around the track one-two-three. That, combined with the Gulfstream main track’s somewhat overplayed reputation as a speed-biased surface – it sometimes is, but it is not biased on every single big-race day, nor on every single racing day, either, for that matter – might lead one to think the racing surface affected the Fountain of Youth result.

I’m as big a believer in track bias as anyone, but even after initial suspicions following Gulfstream’s first two races Saturday, many hours before the Fountain of Youth, that there might be an inside speed thing going on, I don’t believe there was a bias at play affecting the Fountain of Youth result, or compromising Good Magic’s performance.

The three middle dirt races Saturday at Gulfstream were won by two outside closers and an outside stalker. You don’t get three straight winners like that if a real bias is in play. And it’s worth adding that while it’s true you don’t want to come from way out of it on Gulfstream’s main track in general, the same is true at just about every other race track. Speed is a universal bias.

The main concern here for Good Magic, barring an injury that has not yet surfaced, is whether he has made the transitional improvement from 2 to 3. Every indicator you can think of – from being a son of Curlin to the Chad Brown barn he resides in – strongly suggests that Good Magic will only improve with maturity and experience. But the Fountain of Youth Good Magic did not perform like a horse who took a step forward from 2 to 3. His preliminary Beyer Figure of 89 was pedestrian. I know you’re never supposed to underestimate a champion, but the pressure is now on Good Magic to do a lot better in his next start. He must if he is to be considered a prime Kentucky Derby contender.
The winning and second-place Fountain of Youth efforts from Promises Fulfilled and Strike Power were unfortunately overshadowed by Good Magic’s loss, which is what happens when a champion loses a race he is expected to win.

That said, Promises Fulfilled, even if he had a fairly unmolested early lead but who was also making his first start since last fall, has clearly taken a step forward from 2 to 3. That was evidenced by his preliminary winning Beyer of 96, which was 20 points higher than his previous best. And Strike Power, whom I thought would be in control of the pace stretching out to two turns for the first time, but who instead sat off Promises Fulfilled when that one was hell-bent on making the front to avoid a speed duel, was very game under the circumstances, even if he was no match for the winner.

** I’ve been a little worried about the 3-year-old filly division. Monomoy Girl was very impressive winning the Rachel Alexandra, but Road to Victory, who edged her in the strongly run Golden Rod last fall, has no works this year as of this writing, and divisional champion Caledonia Road is recovering from an ankle chip.

But on Saturday, Midnight Bisou alleviated some of my concerns with a very sharp score in the Santa Ysabel at Santa Anita. True, the Santa Ysabel became an easier spot when Dream Tree scratched because of the wet track, but Midnight Bisou handled the two turns in her first route try beautifully, and she is most definitely one of the stronger ones in her division.

(I loved that Midnight Bisou had her tail tied up for the Santa Ysabel. It used to be that everyone tied their horses’s tails back on wet track days to avoid picking up pounds of mud that could accumulate in an untied tail during a race. Given the way so many things are parsed in this game now, I don’t understand why more trainers don’t do this for their horses on wet track days.)

Fly So High extended her win streak with another decisive score in Gulfstream’s Davona Dale for 3-year-old fillies. Everyone is relieved that whatever it was that caused Fly So High to be vanned off post-race seems to be nothing, but her winning preliminary Beyer of 83 was 11 points shy of Midnight Bisou’s in the Santa Ysabel, and that is cause for pause.