HALLANDALE, Fla. -- The 10 horses in the $200,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes today at Gulfstream Park illustrate the problem. The field is so competitive that identifying the favorite might be as difficult as selecting the winner.
And this is just one race in February. How can anybody be expected to pick the winner of the Kentucky Derby now -- 10 weeks before the race May 1 at Churchill Downs?
The answer: Nobody can be expected to do it.
That is presumably why one bettor Thursday at Lone Star Park in Texas put down $10,000 on "the field" in the inaugural Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Instead of selecting any of 23 individual horses to win the Derby, the gambler opted for every other 3-year-old in the world.
Unfortunately, races such as the Fountain of Youth Stakes offer no "field" betting, leaving gamblers to stumble along the Kentucky Derby trail much the same as the horses.
The 3-year-olds of 1999 are so far a blur, except for one colt and three fillies in California. We'll get to those later. But first, here in South Florida at sun-splashed Gulfstream Park, the Fountain of Youth Stakes should begin lending clarity.
Nearly every top 3-year-old in Florida is entered, and all 10 have appeared on handicappers' lists of Kentucky Derby contenders. The horses' trainers, as well as their backers at the mutuel windows, are eager for answers.
"The game's about to begin," said Carl Nafzger, trainer of Vicar, the tepid morning-line favorite in the Fountain of Youth. "You've got a 1 1/16-mile race around two turns, and the best horses beginning to hook up. The countdown begins for everybody."
For 74-year-old trainer John Tammaro, a Baltimore native who began galloping horses at 13, the race begins the countdown for Aly's Alley. This is the colt's first start since nearly winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in November at odds of 76-1.
Tammaro rode as a jockey and then trained in Maryland until the early 1970s. Although he has won numerous training titles at tracks from Ontario to Florida, he has never started a horse in the Kentucky Derby.
For the Breeders' Cup, Tammaro summoned the jockey Edgar Prado from Maryland, and Prado will be aboard in the Fountain of Youth. Tammaro said that as long as Aly's Alley keeps running well, Prado will keep riding him.
That provides Prado, a star in Maryland, a rare pathway to the Kentucky Derby. And if that's not enough, Prado is also the jockey of Millions, another leading Derby contender.
Marylander Leon Blusiewicz trains Millions. Trainer and horse are spending the winter in Camden, S.C. Blusiewicz had planned his road to the Derby: Two stakes at Laurel Park (Herat on March 6 and Private Terms on March 27), then the Wood Memorial Stakes on April 10 at Aqueduct.
But on Thursday, Millions spiked a fever from an infection and missed a workout. Blusiewicz described it as a "temporary setback." But still, he said, it will force Millions to miss the Herat and him to devise a new schedule.
"As long as I get two races in him before the Derby," Blusiewicz said, "I'll be OK."
One of the few top Florida prospects not in the Fountain of Youth is Lemon Drop Kid, owned by Jinny Vance of Sparks. The colt's trainer, Scotty Schulhofer, is a man of few words. But asked how Lemon Drop Kid was doing, Schulhofer said emphatically: "Great." The trainer is pointing him for the Swale Stakes on March 13 at Gulfstream Park.
Meanwhile, out in California, the Derby spotlight shines on trainer Bob Baffert, winner of the past two Derbys with Silver Charm and Real Quiet. He trains several contenders, none more celebrated than Exploit, who has yet to lose in five starts.
He also manages two fillies who may be as talented, or more talented, than the males: Silverbulletday and Excellent Meeting. They ran one-two in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.
Silverbulletday races against fillies today at the Fair Grounds in the $125,000 Davona Dale Stakes. But her day against the males, and Excellent Meeting's too, may come soon.
The third promising filly on the West Coast is Honest Lady, who is two-for-two for Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel.
Finally, Answer Lively, who won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the Eclipse Award as outstanding 2-year-old male, but flopped in his 3-year-old debut, tries again tomorrow at the Fair Grounds in the $125,000 Risen Star Stakes.
Fountain of Youth
What: Grade I Fountain of Youth Stakes
Where: Gulfstream Park, Hallandale, Fla.
When: Today, 3: 14 p.m. post time
Distance: 1 1/16 miles
TV: Chs. 2, 7
Pub Date: 2/20/99