The January 1 Gulfstream Park Derby turned out to be the key predictor for Saturday's Grade 2, $415,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes, as Wildcat Red and General a Rod reprised their duel in what developed into a virtual match race. Only this time, Honors Stable Corp.'s Wildcat Red gained revenge in a photo-finish, and took home 50 points toward the Kentucky Derby. Top Billing, the 2-1 favorite, launched a gallant rally from far back to finish a clear third, but couldn't reach the top two on a track that was playing kindly to speed.
General a Rod, who had not raced since his New Year's Day heroics around a one-turn mile, ranked as the 3-1 second choice. Wildcat Red had the benefit of a run in the interim, having romped in the February 1 Hutcheson at seven furlongs, and left the gate as the 9-2 fourth pick here.
Both were trying two turns for the first time in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth, and they sped off right away in an early pace battle. Wildcat Red had the inside path from post 4, while General a Rod, drawn next door in post 5, matched strides to his outside. Vying through fractions of :23 and :46 1/5, the rivals held a clear advantage on the rest of the field.
The Todd Pletcher-trained Commissioner, who broke well as the 7-2 third choice, eased back from his rail post and wasn't heard from again. Almost Famous might have been expected to be part of the fray, but didn't get away alertly, found himself shuffled back, and never got involved.
Top Billing, true to his deep-closing style, dropped to anchor the 12-horse field in the opening stages. But the Shug McGaughey colt commenced a sustained rally leaving the backstretch, passed half of his foes, and catapulted into sixth while the leaders clocked six furlongs in 1:10. Top Billing continued his eye-catching progress until he was third swinging into the stretch, and for an instant, favorite backers might have imagined that he could threaten the pacesetters.
But Wildcat Red and General a Rod were not for catching down the short stretch. Eyeball-to-eyeball throughout, neither gave any quarter. Wildcat Red clung grimly to a narrow lead, with his head in front at the mile mark in 1:35 1/5, and the Jose Garoffalo trainee simply refused to let General a Rod pass.
Although General a Rod tried one final lunge as they reached for the wire, attempting to give jockey Javier Castellano a record-tying seventh win on the card, Wildcat Red's head got there first for Luis Saez. The ultra-game winner posted a final time of 1:41 4/5 and rewarded his loyalists with an $11 win payout.
"(At the top of the stretch), I knew I was going to win the race, because my horse, all the time he tries so hard," Saez said. "When we came into the stretch, he fought, and he never let the other horse pass him. He's a great horse. (At the wire), I wasn't sure, but I thought I got the win."
Co-owner Josie Delfino was delighted.
"This feels great -- it's so emotional," Delfino said. "We've been in racing for two years. We're what you call newcomers. We had a good friend from Venezuela introduce us to Jose. We always wanted a horse -- we rescue animals in Venezuela -- but didn't know it would be a racehorse until after we met Jose. We didn't think we'd get this far so quick, but after we got Red we thought we'd go far. He has the heart of a winner."
"We proved that we were right -- that the horse could get the distance," Garoffalo said. "I thought (General a Rod) was the horse to beat and the race was a copy of the last race, the Gulfstream Park Derby, but this time I got lucky and I beat him. I was expecting him to be right next to or right behind me.
"Javier (Castellano, on General a Rod) knows my horse," the trainer added, alluding to the fact that Castellano had ridden Wildcat Red in the Hutcheson. "That's why he went after him very early. When my horse feels another horse alongside, he runs harder. Now we can think seriously about the (Kentucky) Derby. He never quits and he likes that -- to feel the horse next to him. I was very confident at the wire. I knew that he was going to beat him this time."
Castellano credited General a Rod for his effort in defeat.
"I had a beautiful trip," Gulfstream's leading rider said. "It was where I wanted to be. He's such a nice horse. It was a competitive race. I had a lot of chances to win the race. The horse gave me everything he had. Unfortunately, he just got beat by the bob."
"The horse ran super," trainer Mike Maker said of General a Rod. "What else can you say?"
The top two had two lengths to spare over Top Billing, who was himself 4 1/2 lengths clear of East Hall.
Top Billing's connections noted that he did well in the circumstances.
"We just couldn't catch them," McGaughey said. "He made a good run, I thought at the quarter-pole we probably had them, but we just couldn't get to them."
"He broke well," jockey Joel Rosario said, "and he's the type of horse that takes a little time to get in the race. It looks like the track is holding speed today, but I think he ran well. He's a smart horse and he finished well. They were going pretty quick and didn't let up. That was a good race for him, I think."
Fourth-place finisher East Hall reinforced the Gulfstream Park Derby-look to the Fountain of Youth, for he had finished third to General a Rod and Wildcat Red on January 1. Medal Count checked in fifth, followed by Commissioner, Our Caravan, We Miss Artie, Best Plan Yet, C. Zee, Almost Famous and a tailed-off Hesinfront. Casiguapo was scratched.
Pletcher looked for a bright spot about Commissioner.
"I thought he ran pretty well, better than it probably looks on paper," Pletcher said. "He broke well and put himself into a decent spot, but the way the track's playing speed is so, so good right now and it's hard to make up much ground. He tried to chase him the whole way and I think he wants to settle. I think he needs longer and he probably needs to get off Gulfstream."
Pletcher also commented on his other runner, turf/synthetic specialist We Miss Artie.
"He moved up into a decent position, and (jockey) Joe (Bravo) said he was always getting a lot of dirt in his face and never really leveled off and never got into a comfortable rhythm," Pletcher said.
Wildcat Red now boasts a mark of 6-4-2-0, $490,850, compiled exclusively at Gulfstream. After breaking his maiden by eight lengths on September 14 going 6 1/2 furlongs, the D'wildcat colt beat allowance foes the following month by 1 1/2 lengths at six furlongs. He finished first by 1 1/4 lengths in the $125,000 Juvenile Sprint on November 9, but was disqualified and placed second after bearing out on a rival in the stretch.
Making his sophomore debut on New Year's Day, in the $100,000 Gulfstream Park Derby, Wildcat Red dueled throughout the one-mile test but fell a head short of General a Rod at the finish. That is the only time that he hasn't crossed the wire in front. Withdrawn from a projected tilt at the January 25 Holy Bull because of a cold, Wildcat Red went to Plan B in the Hutcheson, and rolled by 4 3/4 lengths.
"The Florida Derby (March 29) will be the next step, depending on how the horse comes back, and then we'll see," Garoffalo said. "If everything goes the right way, we will go straight to Churchill Downs, hopefully.
"Saez deserves to ride the horse again unless he changes his mind (as the regular rider of Holy Bull hero Cairo Prince), but for the moment that's not the issue.
"I won a Grade 2 a couple of years ago (with Yara in the 2012 Davona Dale), but this is for three-year-old colts and that gets the most attention because it's the road to the Derby."
Produced by the Grade 3-placed Racene, a daughter of Miner's Mark, Wildcat Red is a half-brother to Racing Machine, a champion in Jamaica. Bred in Florida by Moreau Bloodstock International and Winter Racing Enterprise, he was a $30,000 OBS June purchase as a juvenile.
"I go to the sales with a limited budget," Garoffalo said, "and I liked everything about the horse -- the way he breezed, his athletic body, and more than anything, his attitude. I got lucky that he exactly fit the budget."