Two Derby Preps with Promising Fields

On one coast, you have Forte, he of the Eclipse Award for Champion 2-Year-Old, Eclipse Award-winning trainer in Todd Pletcher and darling status among the East Coast horse racing media and fans, who always anoint one of their own as The Kentucky Derby Prospect “You Must Pay Attention To.”

On the other, you have chaos. Good luck figuring out what ex-pat colt from Bob Baffert’s barn will run best for new, albeit caretaker, trainer Tim Yakteen.

As the Kentucky Derby trail takes us into March, this Saturday brings two of the best foundational Derby preps to bettors’ attention: the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park and the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park. Both Grade 2 races send their charges 1 1/16 miles and both are among the best judges of Derby prospects among Grade 2 tests.

Five Fountain of Youth winners found themselves draped in roses the first Saturday in May, the most recent being Orb in 2013. Two others captured two-thirds of the Triple Crown: Spectacular Bid and Thunder Gulch.

Five San Felipe winners found the Churchill Downs winner’s circle, a club featuring Triple Crown winner Affirmed and two others who won two-thirds of the Triple Crown: Sunday Silence and California Chrome. Most recently, Authentic won the pandemic Derby in 2020.

The two races both offer 50-20-15-10-5 Derby qualifying points to the top five finishers. They both serve as stepping stones to their track’s respective Grade 1 Derby Preps: the Florida Derby and Santa Anita Derby. Both of those are among the top Derby preps on the trail.

Forte Makes Winning his Strength

 This year, however, the similarities end when it comes to handicapping. The Fountain of Youth conversation begins with Forte, who makes his 3-year-old debut as the 7-5 morning-line favorite. He’s the 7-1 favorite on Caesars’ Kentucy Derby Future Board. It’s his first start since winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile by 1 1/2 lengths at Keeneland last November.

That was his fourth victory in five starts as a 2-year-old. Three of those (Hopeful, Breeders’ Futurity and BC Juvenile) being Grade 1s. Pletcher said that five-race juvenile schedule makes it an easy decision to run him only twice leading to the Derby.

I’m very comfortable with two races leading up, hopefully to the Derby,” Pletcher said. “We’ve approached it from various angles and felt like this was the right path for him. So far, everything has been going to plan.”

If Forte’s form fits the Fountain of Youth, about the only trends that can derail him here are the fact that only four favorites in the last 13 editions won the race. Should you look elsewhere, three candidates stand out: Blazing Sevens (7-2), Rocket Can (8-1) and intriguing longshot Shadow Dragon (12-1).

Blazing Sevens, who is 22-1 at Caesars to win the Kentucky Derby, finished fourth in that Breeders’ Cup Juvenile after a terrible start. He won the Grade 1 Champagne as a juvenile and finished third in the Hopeful.

Rocket Can, 80-1 at Caesars to win the Derby, comes in after his half-length score in the Grade 3 Holy Bull, the Fountain of Youth’s prep. As for Shadow Dragon, he finished second in that race, but has graded-stakes experience and Jose Ortiz aboard. Only Orb in 2013 crossed the finish line first without a graded-stakes race on the resume. And Ortiz won the last two Fountain of Youths, has two seconds and a third in five trips.

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Yakteen Well Represented at San Felipe

Now, we cross the country into Chaos Country at the San Felipe. Usually, you could just pick out the Baffert entry you liked, plunk down your money and stand a pretty good chance of returning to the window. Baffert owns eight of these, including 2020 and 2021.

But he’ll be a bystander this year, after sending four of his entries to Tim Yakteen. That, courtesy of his suspension from Churchill Downs for the medication violation on Medina Spirit from the 2021 Derby.

This, along with an eclectic field, turns the San Felipe into a horseplayer’s puzzle. The first Baffert ex-pat piece is Hejazi. The $3.5 million colt was favored in three of his four starts, but owns only a last-out victory in a January 15 maiden race. That, however, came with a stellar 99 Beyer Speed Figure.

A 30-1 futures pick at Caesars, Hejazi hasn’t missed the board in those four starts (1-2-1). But in his only two-turn effort, he finished a miserable fifth behind Cave Rock in the Grade 1 and American Pharoah last fall.

Speaking of the American Pharoah, Baffert’s next ex-pat: National Treasure (20-1 at Caesars), finished second in that race. He finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, then third in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes as the 3-5 favorite. Like his stablemate, Hejazi, National Treasure hasn’t missed the board (1-1-2). He needs to prove he can finish a two-turn route.

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Mr. Fisk Catching Fire

 One Baffert ex-pat who has solid two-turn experience is Mr. Fisk. He captured a two-turn maiden mile January 2 at Santa Anita. That came on the heels of a second to stablemate Reincarnate in a two-turn mile at Del Mar in November.

Yakteen brings one of his own with two-turn experience to the fray: Practical Move. Last December, he won the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity at 10-1. That was his second two-turn race, following a disqualification victory two starts earlier in an October maiden mile at Santa Anita.

Two others not from the Baffert/Yakteen barn add to the chaos: Geaux Rocket Ride and Skinner. Trained by Hall of Famer Richard Mandella, who won last year’s San Felipe with Forbidden Kingdom, Geaux Rocket Ride makes only his second start. His first explains why he’s 35-1 on Caesars’ future board: a nearly six-length dissection of a maiden special weight at 6-1. That came with a 92 Beyer.

Skinner (65-1 at Caesars) serves as a co-X factor here with Geaux Rocket Ride. The Curlin colt hasn’t factored in either of his Grade 1s.  He finished sixth in the American Pharoah and third in the Del Mar Futurity. But he rallied with a vengeance to win a maiden special weight by 3 1/4 lengths Feb. 12. Skinner’s 95 Beyer makes him a player in this field.

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