02/21/2013 3:00PM

Weekend Warrior for Feb. 23: Picks for Fountain of Youth, Risen Star, Mineshaft Handicap

Barbara D. Livingston
Palace Malice should appreciate the two turns of the Risen Star at Fair Grounds.

The road to the Kentucky Derby enters a new phase Saturday with ramped up point values for prep races. Between the Risen Star at Fair Grounds and the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, which are both Grade 2, $400,000 events, there will be 170 Derby points available, points that will be crucial in an oversubscribed Kentucky Derby field.

The Risen Star heads a card that includes five other stakes, including a trio of Grade 3 races – the $200,000 Rachel Alexandra, the $150,000 Fair Grounds Handicap, and the $150,000 Mineshaft Handicap. The Fountain of Youth, meanwhile, is supported by the Grade 2, $250,000 Davona Dale, and the Grade 3, $150,000 Canadian Turf Stakes. One other Saturday stakes worthy of note is the Grade 2, $200,000 San Carlos at Santa Anita.

Fountain of Youth Stakes [Get PPs + Watch Live]

Violence will be the strong favorite, and deservedly so. He won all three of his starts last year, including the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity, and for a time this winter in Las Vegas he was the future book Kentucky Derby favorite. But as formidable as Violence might be, he is not so imposing that you can’t look at a few others in here. After all, when Violence won the Nashua Stakes in his second start, he could have easily been disqualified for racking up three opponents to his inside in upper stretch. When he won the CashCall most recently, he got the sweetest trip you could ever ask for in a big field of 2-year-olds going two turns. Heck, even when Violence won his debut at Saratoga, he wasn’t anywhere near the best horse that day. And that leads to the one horse I prefer.

I’m taking a shot with Orb, who made his debut in the same race as Violence. While Violence broke a step slowly that day, Orb got off to a disastrous start, breaking in the air and spotting the field five to six lengths. After that, Orb was at least 14 lengths out of it down the backstretch, but advanced wide on the turn, went about six wide into the stretch, and finished remarkably well under the circumstances to finish third, beaten only a little more than a length.

The thing is, as Violence went on to win his next two starts, earning improved Beyer Figures each time, Orb struggled mightily. Even Orb’s maiden victory in his fourth start was pedestrian (he earned a Beyer of only 76), though he did beat the highly regarded Revolutionary, but that was before Revolutionary put it together and became the threat he is now. In any case, Orb followed his maiden win with a two-turn score at Gulfstream last month in his first start with Lasix. Again, I wasn’t that impressed at first with that win. But in retrospect, I think Orb’s performance was much better than I originally game him credit for, and is also better than it looks on paper.

Orb was checked from between horses on the first turn last time out, and that put him farther off the pace than he might otherwise have been. As the race unfolded, that wasn’t a great place to be. The pace in Orb’s race (49.11 seconds and 1:13.58) was substantially slower than in the other split division of this allowance (47.64 and 1:11.65, and won in front-running fashion by Cerro, who is also in the Fountain of Youth). Orb should have been severely compromised by the slow pace, but he instead made a nice three-wide run to challenge on the far turn and stayed on gamely in the stretch to prevail. Orb will have to improve to win Saturday, but he has the look of a colt who is capable of doing just that, and he will be a square price.

Risen Star Stakes [Get PPs]

I am a Normandy Invasion fan. I was most impressed with his effort in narrow defeat last fall in a strongly run Remsen, specifically the huge move he made on the far turn. And I am not concerned about the three-month layoff Normandy Invasion brings into this race, or the fact that he has bigger game to hunt than this in the not-to-distant future. Trainer Chad Brown is outstanding with layoff horses, and I feel Normandy Invasion is good enough even if he isn’t fully cranked. But what I am concerned about is taking a short price on a closer like Normandy Invasion in a big field such as this, knowing he is going to need some racing luck. So I’m going against a horse I like. It happens.

Palace Malice is my play. Palace Malice showed potential in both of his starts last summer, a narrow defeat in his debut that for a time ranked as the strongest 2-year-old maiden race in New York, and then a decisive score at Saratoga. Palace Malice was upset at 4-5 at Gulfstream last month in his return from a five-month layoff, but that race was in the slop. That isn’t meant as an excuse for Palace Malice. He handled the slop fine, something to keep in mind given how the New Orleans weather can be. But it is to note that the horse who beat him, Majestic Hussar, is something of a wet track freak. Anyway, a bullet work last Sunday by Palace Malice says the screws are now tightened, and he now finally gets a chance to go two turns, which is something he was cut out to do.

Mineshaft Handicap [Get PPs]

I hope Mark Valeski indeed goes off the favorite he is on the morning line. He might win, but the fact that he was bet down to 4-5 last time in the Louisiana Handicap off an eight-month absence suggests to me he was ready that day and yet he still couldn’t hold off Infrattini. I’m not at all sure that Mark Valeski will move forward second time back.

I respect Infrattini, who is going for his fifth straight win, but I like Golden Ticket. Golden Ticket, of course, dead-heated for win at 33-1 with Alpha in last summer’s Travers. And Golden Ticket turned in his best performance since in his first start this year at Gulfstream, a strong allowance win that was the type of effort he can build on.