Fountain of Youth provides fountain of information

Updated: February 19, 1999, 5:24 PM ET
By Ed McNamara | Special to ESPN.com

February is a month to wait out, because nothing significant happens. The NFL is over, baseball is just starting, the NHL and NBA grind along, and March Madness is weeks off.

For racing fans, the first Saturday in May still may seem far away, but the Eastern-based 3-year-olds are ready to take the first big test on the Triple Crown trail.

Ten of them will enter the starting gate Saturday at Gulfstream Park in the Grade I, $200,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes. Only hardcore handicappers will know much about any of them, however, because the early favorites for the 125th Kentucky Derby will be thousands of miles away. Undefeated Exploit is in trainer Bob Baffert's loaded barn in Southern California, and Worldly Manner is in Dubai, being prepared for the first Middle Eastern bid for America's Race. The 3-year-old picture in the East is a mystery, and the wide-open Fountain of Youth may provide some clues, as it often does.

"This race should really separate them all," said Mark Hennig, who trains the intriguing longshot Casanova Star, a son of 1992 Horse of the Year A.P. Indy. "Right now there's really not a 3-year-old (in Florida) to get excited about."

In the past 20 years, the Fountain of Youth has been a valuable form pointer for the Triple Crown, even though only two of its winners (Thunder Gulch in '95, Spectacular Bid in '79) took the Kentucky Derby. Go for Gin and Pleasant Colony ran second and Unbridled and Swale came in third at Gulfstream before earning the roses at Churchill Downs, so winning is not all that matters in late February in South Florida. Running a solid race is important, though, because a dud on Saturday may cure owners and trainers of Derby fever.

Carl Nafzger, who trained 1990 Derby winner Unbridled, is getting impatient with Vicar, who finished fifth after encountering trouble in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream. "I saw what I needed to the last time," Nafzger said, "but I can't keep making excuses for him any longer. He has to run big on Saturday."

So do Doneraile Court and Cat Thief, neither of whom turned in a breakthrough performance in 3-year-old debuts last month. The situation is different for Aly's Alley and Successful Appeal, each of whom is racing for the first time since November. Neither should be fully cranked up and probably are not worth a wager. Maybe next time.

Certain is proven at the distance, and The Groom Is Red and Grits'n Hard Toast have had their moments. Legal Street and Casanova Star have distance pedigrees and plenty of potential, and colts with such profiles often make quantum leaps at this time of year and knock off horses who dominated them as 2-year-olds.

The 53rd running of the Fountain of Youth is a good betting race that will provide insights into horses who may be in the Derby post parade on May 1. February doesn't get much better than that.

ABC will provide live coverage, with post time at approximately 3:14 p.m. ET.