HALLANDALE, Fla. -- Carl Nafzger wrapped his arms around Shane Sellers. Trainer and jockey embraced in the winner's circle as Nafzger said, "We're on our way."
Yesterday at Gulfstream Park, the festive track near Fort Lauderdale where the likes of Unbridled and Spectacular Bid began powering toward the Derby, the Nafzger-trained Vicar won the highly competitive, $200,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes.
The Wild Again colt led virtually every stride of the race, a 1 1/16-mile affair elevated this year to Grade I status. He paid $11.20 to win as the 9-to-2 second choice. His time of 1 minute 45 3/5 seconds was the slowest since 1986.
Vicar's performance began to clarify the 3-year-old picture on the East Coast, but it left much still to be decided. Five of the 10 horses encountered trouble on their way to the first turn.
If their trainers choose to look at the glass as half full, their horses might show up in three weeks in the Florida Derby, this track's next steppingstone to Churchill Downs the first Saturday in the May.
Nafzger, the former bull-rider who trained Unbridled to victory in the 1990 Kentucky Derby, said Vicar showed he has the heart to be a winner. But he also said he believes the majority of horses in the Fountain of Youth, despite the usual drop-out rate at this stage, will remain pointed toward Louisville.
"I think if you watch the race rerun, there's six or seven horses that will still be on the Derby trail," Nafzger said.
One is Aly's Alley, the only horse in the field with strong Maryland ties. He is trained by John Tammaro, the 74-year-old Baltimore native who's never started a horse in the Kentucky Derby, and ridden by Edgar Prado, Maryland's star jockey.
In his first race since finishing second Nov. 7 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Aly's Alley left the starting gate quicker than normal, ran into traffic problems on the first turn and then, as he motored around the oval, gradually ran out of gas and finished ninth.
"I'm not going to get upset, because it happened just like I thought it might," said Tammaro, who worked as a jockey and trainer in Maryland until the 1970s. "A lot of fresh horses do that. He'll get over it. He'll settle back down."
Tammaro said he would probably run Aly's Alley in the Florida Derby. And he said he had no problem with Prado's ride and would bring him back March 13.
Prado chose the glass-is-half-full view, saying, "This is just a prep. Hopefully it won't affect him in the future."
As for his appearance in Florida on a sun-drenched afternoon in the 70s, Prado quipped: "I'd prefer being in the cold making money than being in the sun making none."
Vicar earned $120,000, more than doubling his modest bankroll. This was only his fifth start and first stakes win. In the Holy Bull Stakes here five weeks ago, Vicar finished fifth as the favorite after becoming trapped along the rail and refusing to relax.
Nafzger said his instructions to Sellers before the Fountain of Youth were straightforward: "Just get the colt to relax, ride the first turn and get yourself in position. At least we'll find out if the colt wants to be a racehorse or not."
After the race, Nafzger said: "I think we found that out. When Shane asked him, he just kept digging and digging. Every time Shane would ask, he would give more."
Sellers had to ask plenty because Cat Thief and his jockey, Pat Day, settled alongside down the backstretch and applied pressure all the way to the wire. Vicar prevailed by a neck, although Cat Thief, the 3-1 favorite, briefly lost momentum when he bumped in the homestretch with the charging Certain.
The Vicar-Cat Thief exacta paid $47, and the trifecta with Certain returned $198.40.
Cat Thief is, at this point anyway, the only top Derby contender in the barn of D. Wayne Lukas, who said he was extremely pleased with the race, especially considering this was Cat Thief's first venture around two turns.
But the day belonged to Vicar and the 21,294 patrons who set an attendance record for Fountain of Youth day. And the day also belonged to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the jump-blues revivalists who performed immediately after the race.
So there we were, under palm trees and blue skies, jumpin' and jivin' all the way to the Kentucky Derby.
Pub Date: 2/21/99