Heavy-hitters take center stage in Triple Crown chase

Updated March 1, 2018 - 5:39 pm

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.

Contact Mike Brunker mbrunker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.

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