HALLANDALE, Fla. -- The first major confrontation leading to the Kentucky Derby and Preakness took shape yesterday when trainers entered 11 promising 3-year-olds in the Fountain of Youth Stakes tomorrow at Gulfstream Park.
The stakes isn't the first of the year for 3-year-olds, but it's the first that showcases so many contenders for Triple Crown races. History will determine the Fountain of Youth's place in the defining picture of the spring classics. But history already reveals that its place is significant.
In 53 runnings of the Fountain of Youth, 33 Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont winners have competed. Tomorrow, the race features a $1.25 million yearling (Ben The Man), a $50,000 claimer (Un Fino Vino) and much in between, including the early favorite from the barn of D. Wayne Lukas.
Flying in from Santa Anita Park in Southern California, High Yield is the 3-1 morning-line choice as much for his trainer's Triple Crown prowess as for his brief flashes of brilliance on the racetrack.
A son of the top sire, Storm Cat, High Yield produced one of the electrifying performances of a 2-year-old in 1999: a five-length victory in the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. A $1.05 million yearling for his four owners, High Yield has raced nine times and finished worse than third only once. He's won two and recorded three seconds and three thirds.
Along with Europeans Michael Tabor and Susan Magnier, Beverly and Bob Lewis own High Yield. Familiar faces to everyone in racing, the Lewises campaigned Charismatic, last year's Derby and Preakness winner as well as Horse of the Year. They also raced Silver Charm, winner of the Derby and Preakness in 1997.
Yesterday, outside Barn 6 on the Gulfstream backstretch, Lukas grazed High Yield on a patch of grass so green it would make snow-weary northerners envious.
"This horse right here reminds me a lot of Thunder Gulch the way he's coming around," Lukas said, referring to his winner of the 1995 Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby and Belmont.
"He's also very similar to Cat Thief. He's Cat Thief in the 3-year-old model. That means he'll keep everybody honest and win a few. He might win the right one, too."
Lukas' Cat Thief finished second in last year's Fountain of Youth but capped his 3-year-old season with an upset victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic here at Gulfstream.
High Yield may boast the favorite's tag, but the connections of each horse in the Fountain of Youth -- from owner to trainer to groom -- carry Triple Crown aspirations. And until their horse slips off the trail, they have every right to. This is the time the dream burns hottest.
In fact, so many horsemen embrace the dream that Gulfstream officials created a $75,000 allowance race on the Fountain of Youth undercard. They called it the Unbridled and summoned 3-year-olds not quite ready for the prime-time stakes.
Among the half-dozen entrants are two trained by Marylanders: Wayward Ways by H. Graham Motion, based at Laurel Park, and Grundlefoot, trained by Gary Capuano, based at Bowie. Edgar Prado, the former Maryland jockey, will ride Wayward Ways, a speedy son of Wild Again.
Jerry Bailey, possibly the country's best jockey, will ride Grundlefoot, and that is one reason Capuano chose the allowance race over the Fountain of Youth. The top riders were booked for the stakes.
A slow-developing, long-striding closer, Grundlefoot (a son of Unaccounted For and Melancholy Blues) provides Capuano his best hope for a return to national prominence. The unassuming Capuano stepped into the spotlight in 1997 with Captain Bodgit, who finished third in the Fountain of Youth, won the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial Stakes, then finished second in the Kentucky Derby and third in the Preakness.
"If I'm Lukas or Baffert with the stock they have, I'd expect to be there every year," Capuano said. "I'm a little more realistic about my chances of getting back there.
"I think I've got a pretty nice horse. The mile and a quarter [the Derby distance] is going to suit him. It's just a matter of whether he has the class or ability."
Fountain of Youth Stakes
When: Tomorrow, post time 5: 20 p.m.
TV: ESPN 5 p.m.
Where: Gulfstream Park, Hallandale, Fla. Grade: I.
Purse: $200,000. Distance: 1 1/16 miles.
PP Horse Trainer Jockey Odds
1 Ben The Man Joe Orseno Edgar Prado 10-1
2 Un Fino Vino Mitchell Friedman Jorge Chavez 6-1
3 Greenwood Lake Nick Zito Corey Nakatani 4-1
4 High Yield D. Wayne Lukas Pat Day 3-1
5 Personal First David Paulus Marlon St. Julien 12-1
6 American Bullet Frank Gomez Rene Douglas 20-1
7 Rupert Herd Manny Azpurua Shane Sellers 20-1
8 Hal's Hope Harold Rose Roger Velez 8-1
10 Elite Mercedes Elliott Walden Jerry Bailey 8-1
11 Deputy Warlock Ken McPeek Mike Smith 15-1