Some have justifiably been disappointed with the Derby prep performances that we have witnessed through January and February of this cycle. Yet that sentiment is likely to change as calendar pages turn over to March. We are just over a week away from the 3-year-old debuts of last year’s leading juveniles Game Winner and Improbable, and one week prior to their returns we will see an intriguing cast of characters line up in the starting gate for this Saturday’s Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park.
The headline attraction in the Fountain of Youth is Hidden Scroll, the dazzling debut winner who enters this race with a lingering air of mystery about him. The fact that such an inexperienced colt is considered the likely favorite reveals more about Hidden Scroll’s limitless potential than it does his competition, which is quite stiff. Among his top challengers are undefeated Nashua winner Vekoma, Kentucky Jockey Club winner Signalman, Champagne runner-up Code of Honor, and impressive allowance winners Bourbon War and Global Campaign.
The Pace Projector is predicting a fast pace, which should come as no surprise given the amount of speed signed on. Hidden Scroll (#7) is predicted to lead the charge into the first turn, but it’s unclear if his connections will feel the need to implement the same front-running tactics that he used from a rail draw in his debut. If he is sent to the front, he may have to work hard to secure that position, since others will be intent on attaining forward position. Those include need-the-lead types Epic Dreamer (#2) and Gladiator King (#3), as well as stalkers such as Vekoma (#5) and Global Campaign (#8). Even runners like Frosted Grace (#10) and Union’s Destiny (#11), neither of which are predicted to be particularly close to the front by the Pace Projector, have shown speed in their recent starts. Signalman (#6), the third choice on the morning line, would benefit from a quick tempo up front. The same goes for Bourbon War (#4), who owns a massive 114 Late Pace Rating, clearly the highest in the field.
Let’s go through the field:
#1, CODE OF HONOR (6-1): He was the universal wise-guy horse heading into last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs, but a slight fever kept him from participating. He made a belated return to the races in January’s Mucho Macho Man Stakes but was unable to replicate his stellar form from last fall, trudging home a disappointing fourth as the 4-5 favorite. He’s now been given another minor layoff heading into this Fountain of Youth, as Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey attempts to get this colt back on track. Code of Honor does possess some talent, as illustrated by his runner-up effort in the Grade 1 Champagne. He stumbled badly at the start that day and found himself at the back of the 10-horse field. He launched a wide, sweeping rally into contention off the far turn, closing resolutely to be second behind the impressive winner. Unfortunately, his surrounding efforts do not quite measure up to that standard. While he ran a reasonably fast time in his Saratoga debut, he benefited from a slow early pace and a rail-biased surface. Those looking to make excuses for his Mucho Macho Man performance could legitimately point out that he ran his second quarter-mile in 21.84 seconds (per Trakus). However, winner Mihos also put in a fast interior split and was still able to finish off the race. I’m starting to doubt that Code of Honor is a proper Derby prospect, and his sprint-oriented pedigree does not inspire confidence that he will relish the stretch-out to two turns. On the other hand, there is a ton of speed in this field, and he may find himself working out a favorable trip if John Velazquez elects to revert to his Champagne tactics. A difficult call.
#2, EPIC DREAMER (20-1): I took a shot with this colt in the Holy Bull, and he gave me a brief thrill. The pace was quite fast, as the red color-coded TimeformUS pace figures indicate, and Epic Dreamer did all the hard work on the front end. He looked to have more in the tank heading into the far turn, but he immediately came under pressure once Maximus Mischief drew alongside and could not finish off the race. The pace-adjusted 110 TimeformUS Speed Figure that he earned for that performance puts him in the mix, but it’s hard to envision him improving on the Holy Bull result given the presence of additional front-runners and the hike in class. I’m looking elsewhere. Pass.
#3, GLADIATOR KING (50-1): He possesses sprint speed, but he was not fast enough to outrun Epic Dreamer to the lead in the Holy Bull. He may be a greater pace presence this time with a clean break, but it’s highly unlikely that he will still be a factor by the time they hit the quarter pole. Pass.
#4, BOURBON WAR (10-1): This regally bred son of Tapit has yet to run as fast as some of his rivals, topping out at a 109 on the TimeformUS Speed Figure scale, yet there are reasons to be optimistic about his chances. The Pace Projector’s characterization of the race dynamics looks fairly solid, as the volume of speed types in this race should ensure that they are flying along up front. Such a scenario should benefit Bourbon War more than any other horse in this field. In fast-pace situations, it’s important to look at TimeformUS Late Pace Ratings, which illustrate how fast horses are capable of running at the end of their races. Bourbon War’s Late Pace Rating of 114 is the highest in this field by 15 points.
This Mark Hennig trainee has displayed a strong stretch kick in all of his races. He even ran deceptively well when finishing a distant fourth in the Remsen, as he made a valiant, if ineffective, late run into a very slow pace. While he was not facing a field of this caliber when he defeated allowance company last time, I found his performance to be quite encouraging. He seamlessly weaved between runners under minimal urging from Irad Ortiz and drew off with authority in the short stretch. That ease with which he maneuvers through traffic should serve him well as he attempts to close from far behind – likely last of 11 – in this large field. I actually considered making him my top selection, but I maintain some reservations about his overall quality in relation to the rest of this field. On the other hand, minor speed-figure shortcomings may not matter if this race falls apart in the same manner as the Holy Bull. Obviously a major threat.
#5, VEKOMA (7-2): It’s somewhat curious to me that this colt is not mentioned alongside horses like Improbable and Instagrand as next in the pecking order behind champion Game Winner. Vekoma was as exciting as any 2-year-old we saw last year. That September maiden race at Belmont has proven to be every bit as strong as the shockingly fast 1:08 4/5 clocking for six furlongs seemed to indicate. The son of Candy Ride clearly possesses a ton of speed, but he showed the ability to ration his energy right from the start. The early pace of that maiden race was actually somewhat slow for the distance, yet he was able to assert his dominance by running a final quarter in a dazzling 23 2/5 seconds. We saw a similar level of professionalism next time out in the Nashua, as he kindly rated off the pace before charging to the lead at the quarter pole. Unlike most of his rivals, Hidden Scroll notwithstanding, Vekoma does not have to improve at all on his 2-year-old form to win. The standard he set as a juvenile – a pair of 116 TimeformUS Speed Figures – would be good enough to win many preps at this stage on the Derby trail.
The main question for Vekoma is the stretch-out in distance since his pedigree is undeniably geared toward speed. His dam, Mona de Momma, was a confirmed sprinter who won the Grade 1 Humana Distaff at seven furlongs and failed in her lone attempt around two turns. She is a half-sister to another stakes-level sprinter who placed in the Sanford and Sapling stakes, while Vekoma’s second dam is a half-sister to top sprinter Mr. Greeley. From a visual perspective, Vekoma is a powerful mover, but his one flaw is a distinctive paddling action with his left front leg that appears to throw him out of alignment, especially when viewed head-on. That galloping action, though rarely quite so pronounced, is inherent in some progeny of Candy Ride. This combination of factors leaves me with some doubt as to Vekoma’s staying power. He can overcome his pedigree and flawed action in one-turn races, but those issues may catch up to him going two turns. Too talented to dismiss.
#6, SIGNALMAN (9-2): No one in this field has accomplished nearly as much as this Grade 2 winner. While he was never going to beat Game Winner in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he did run well to be third while finishing more than six lengths clear of the rest of the field. Brian Hernandez Jr. gave him a stellar ride, hugging the rail around both turns and slicing through traffic in upper stretch. There is little doubt that Signalman was best despite the slim margin of victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club, as he raced relatively close to an honest pace in the early stages. Hernandez clearly fits this horse like a glove, and he will probably be looking to orchestrate the same sort of trip that carried stablemate Harvey Wallbanger to victory in the Holy Bull. This is a tougher spot than that February prep, but Signalman is also a better horse. While he’s yet to run quite as fast as horses like Vekoma and Hidden Scroll, his TimeformUS Speed Figures do convey an upward trajectory, and there’s every reason to believe he’ll take another step forward on this occasion. Yet, in spite of his impressive résumé, the horses he competed against in graded stakes last year – namely Knicks Go and Plus Que Parfait – have not exactly distinguished themselves in the early-season prep races. I suspect Signalman will be around at the finish, but I doubt he possesses the kind of brilliant talent that may be necessary to win this race. Exotics player.
#7, HIDDEN SCROLL (9-5): It seems as if every self-respecting handicapper is bending over backward to make a case against this horse. I admit that there are many reasons to be skeptical: Perhaps he’s a sloppy-track specialist, or perhaps he benefited from a speed bias, or perhaps he won’t like two turns, or perhaps he’s too inexperienced.
Or perhaps he’s just going to win.
After a while, it becomes instinctual for people like me to search for reasons to tear down a favorite whom we suspect may be an underlay. The point is to find and bet the value, right? Yet sometimes in our quest to dismantle arguments for a favorite, we run the risk of ignoring what is right in front of our eyes.
Hidden Scroll’s debut was a jaw-dropping effort. While some things did work in his favor, he also overcame plenty of adversity. This colt had to be hard used to make the lead from the rail through some fast opening splits. The posted fractions of 22 2/5 and 44 3/5 are likely inaccurate given that one-mile races at Gulfstream essentially start without a run-up. Timing from video, it’s apparent that Hidden Scroll went around 45 1/5 seconds to the half, which is still a taxing pace for a first-time starter going a mile. The 1:34 4/5 final clocking is totally legitimate. There’s also no disputing that Hidden Scroll finished 14 lengths clear of what appeared to be a strong group of maidens while hardly asked for his best. He was assigned a 121 TimeformUS Speed Figure with an added ‘f,’ indicating a lack of confidence in the number due to the presence of first-time starters in the field. Yet, if anything, that number may be on the conservative side. Fourth-place finisher Bodexpress, who lost by 18 lengths, returned to finished second in a strong maiden event next time out, improving his TimeformUS Speed Figure by 17 points.
Bill Mott has been quite candid in saying that he would not make such an aggressive move into graded stakes company with an ordinary horse, and Hidden Scroll showed us again that he was a special colt in his most recent workout on Feb. 22. He absolutely toyed with stablemate Tacitus – a decent horse in his own right – as that rival was under a full-out drive while losing ground in the stretch at Payson Park. The scariest thing about Hidden Scroll is that he doesn’t even appear to be running fast when he’s in a full gallop. He floats over the ground with those massive strides. A horse of his physical makeup is supposed to have no trouble handling added ground. He’s also beautifully bred to stretch out. Hard Spun is an incredibly versatile sire, and his dam, Sheba Queen, is a half-sister to Starformer, a multiple graded stakes winner at distances ranging form 1 1/4 miles to 1 1/2 miles.
Plenty can go awry when dealing with a horse as lightly raced as Hidden Scroll. Yet none of those concerns alter the overwhelming evidence that he is simply the fastest horse in this race – he’s likely the fastest 3-year-old in any race. Those types often find a way to win, regardless of how creatively we argue against them. The selection.
#8, GLOBAL CAMPAIGN (10-1): I’ve seen some racing fans making comparisons between this undefeated colt and the runner drawn just to his inside. I don’t quite understand. Hidden Scroll has shown himself to be the kind of rare talent that comes along once every few years, while Global Campaign appears to be an improving colt of questionable quality. I’m not going to entertain arguments that this son of Curlin would have run much faster if Luis Saez has gone to a full-out drive in either of his starts. Such fantasies generally do not pan out when these horses are tested for class. In fairness to Global Campaign, his TimeformUS Speed Figures rate him slightly better than the Beyer Speed Figures do, yet he still must improve to get on terms with the likes of Hidden Scroll and Vekoma. However, my biggest knock against this colt is that he has received incredibly soft trips in his races. The early paces in both of his starts have not been particularly taxing, and he has worked out beautiful outside stalking trips on each occasion. He may be in for a real shock this time when horses like Epic Dreamer and Gladiator King speed off to the front. The Pace Projector shows him in fifth place early, so he is likely to find himself much farther behind than he is accustomed to. Given what I’ve seen of him, I’ll be somewhat surprised if he is able to overcome such a trip and outrun those aforementioned classy rivals. Pass.
#9, EVERFAST (20-1): He took advantage of a favorable setup and a weak field when rallying for second at a massive price in the Holy Bull. Dale Romans is notorious for taking shots in big races, and horses like Everfast illustrate that strategy. Romans knows that even the best horses have off days. However, the Holy Bull situation was a highly unusual one, as all of the fancied runners ran well below par. That kind of lightning is unlikely to strike twice. Pass.
#10, FROSTED GRACE (30-1): This one-turn specialist ran the best race of his career when able to control a slow pace on the front end. He will encounter a completely different scenario this time. Pass.
#11, UNION’S DESTINY (30-1): Garter and Tie, who soundly defeated him last time, was not a major factor in the Holy Bull, and this race is tougher. He’s overmatched. Pass.
It’s out of character for me to make a strong case for a favorite like Hidden Scroll (#7). Under normal circumstances, we are supposed to be highly concerned about all of the potential vulnerabilities that may be exposed when dealing with such a lightly raced runner. However, I strongly suspect that this horse is an extraordinary talent, and I feel it would be disingenuous for me to pick against him.
My primary backup is Bourbon War (#4), followed by Vekoma (#5) and Signalman (#6). I’ll also use a few more underneath in exotics, but the rest are fringe players.
Exacta: 7 with 4,5,6
Trifecta: 7 with 4,5 with 1,2,4,5,6,8,9
Trifecta: 7 with 1,6 with 4,5
Trifecta: 4 with 7 with 1,5,6