Just as playwrights use unseen characters to advance the plot, this year’s road to the Triple Crown has been overshadowed by two horses whose absence has called into question everything we’ve been watching on stage.
But while Godot never shows up (belated spoiler alert), the suspense over the reappearance of last year’s top 2-year-olds is about to be released, whether with a bang or a whimper.
Good Magic, whose maiden victory came in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November at Del Mar, will make his much-anticipated return to the races on Saturday in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (Gr. 2) at Gulfstream Park.
Then Bolt d’Oro, who led the 2-year-old division right up to the moment of Good Magic’s breakthrough win, is expected to make his 2018 debut on March 10 in the San Felipe Stakes (Gr. 2) at Santa Anita.
This is late in the game for horses with designs on the Kentucky Derby to be making their first starts of the year. Historically, horses that win the Kentucky Derby gain seasoning with a solid 2-year-old campaign and then come back with several strong preps as 3-year-olds before the big race.
There’s still time for both horses to squeeze in two prep races. But with just 64 days until the Run for the Roses, there is no room for error.
The good news for the connections of Good Magic and Bolt d’Oro is that both horses are well positioned in the points race that determines who makes the starting gate in Louisville, with the former holding 24 points and the latter 14. As long as they hit the board in at least one of their prep races, both should make the field.
That brings us to the two big questions handicappers must answer in their comeback races: Are the horses likely to improve as 3-year-olds – not a given with precocious young horses – and if they are, will they be cranked up enough to win right away, given that the Kentucky Derby is the true goal.
Your answer to those questions will determine your betting approach. But keep in mind that if either horse is going to be beaten at short odds, the comeback races are where it will most likely happen.
#RJhorseracing featured races
The #RJhorseracing handicappers are tackling both the $400,000 Fountain of Youth and the Mac Diarmida Stakes (Gr. 2), a turf race for older horses immediately preceding the former race for Saturday’s stakes-packed 14-race Gulfstream card.
In the 1 3/8th-mile Mac Diarmida, our crew is narrowly backing Sadler’s Joy, the comebacking 7-2 morning line favorite, over Oscar Nominated (5-1) and Patterson Cross (8-1). I’ll go with Patterson Cross, who just missed in this race last year and ran well against the favorite before taking a lengthy vacation.
In the Fountain of Youth, run at 1 1/16th mile on the main track, the handicappers are confident that trainer Chad Brown will have Good Magic, the 7-5 favorite, ready to defeat Free Drop Billy (9-2). Strike Power (4-1) and Storm Runner (15-1) were tied for third.
“Why not Good Magic?” wrote handicapper Shelly Benardo, noting that the son of Curlin is just a half-length shy of being a two-time Grade 1 winner. “… An Ortiz (jockey Jose), good early speed and a Chad Brown trainee. Sold!”
I’ll take a partial stand against the fave and back Free Drop Billy to win, figuring the advantage of a recent race might enable him to pull a rabbit out of his hat. But to be safe, I’ll box him in an exacta with the favorite and Marconi (8-1), who ran a better-than-looked third in the Withers Stakes (Gr. 3) at Aqueduct last month.
Drop me an email or follow me on Twitter if you’d like to join the fun next week.
Ellis Starr’s Fountain of Youth analysis
Storm Runner is a perfect two-for-two in two-turn dirt races. The 111Equibase Speed Figure earned in that allowance optional claiming race was stakes quality, as it was equal to the figure Strike Power earned winning the Swale Stakes and slightly better than the 109 figure Good Magic earned winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November. With improving to do in his third start off the layoff and with a very sharp workout coming into the race (fourth best of 39 on the day), Storm Runner can post the upset to win this year’s Fountain of Youth Stakes.
It is always a tough task for any horse to return from many months off in a two-turn race and run at peak form, but Good Magic may do just that. Trainer Chad Brown is very adept at getting horses ready to run this far off a layoff and off workouts alone, as Stats Race Lens tells us he is 13 for 39 in the past two years with horses coming back from 61 to 180 days in a dirt route. With workouts every six to seven days since returning to training in January, Good Magic has every right to run as well as, or better than he did in the Juvenile.
Except for a ninth place effort in the Juvenile last fall, Free Drop Billy has done nothing wrong, finishing first or second in all five races. Free Drop Billy returned to finish second of nine in the Holy Bull Stakes last month and even though the 89 figure from that effort pales in comparison to those of several of his rivals, we can always expect big improvement by some horses early in their 3-year-old seasons. As such, Free Drop Billy is another contender to win this race.
Gotta Go is a horse I will consider at least for any exotic wagers made as he should benefit from the contested early pace. He closed for second in the Swale, a race in which Strike Power controlled the tempo in front, a scenario unlikely to be repeated in this situation. Improving off his 105 figure from that effort gives Gotta Go a chance to be in the mix. Similarly, Marconi rallied from last of five to third in the Withers Stakes last month, in his first start of the year. That effort earned him a career- best figure, but it was 90 and far afield of what it will take to win this race. However, Marconi is trained by Todd Pletcher and won a mile and one-eighth race in only the second start of his career so big improvement is possible second off the layoff for this half-brother to 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man. Another horse with a chance to be part of the exacta or trifecta is He Takes Charge, who like Storm Runner is a recent winner at Gulfstream Park at the distance of the Fountain of Youth. The 99 figure earned is decent enough and he too can benefit from the likely contested early pace scenario.
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.