Irish War Cry made it look easy when he won the Holy Bull Stakes and stamped himself as a top contender for the Kentucky Derby. But trainer Graham Motion knows the colt might not have it all his own way Saturday in the next step on the road to the Triple Crown, the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park.
“We didn’t have a target on our back last time,” Motion said.
They do now.
Irish War Cry was listed as the slight 5-2 program favorite for the 71st running of the $400,000 Fountain of Youth, a 1 1/16-mile precursor to the April 1 Florida Derby and May 6 Kentucky Derby.
The 3-year-old chestnut colt pulled off a mild upset in the Feb. 4 Holy Bull when he knocked off 2-year-old champion Classic Empire and five other rivals for a convincing 3 3/4-length victory.
But Irish War Cry, under the handling of jockey Joel Rosario, enjoyed a tactical advantage when they broke on top and raced to an uncontested lead. That enabled the horse to relax and save some kick for the stretch.
They may not have that luxury in the Fountain of Youth.
At least two new rivals -- Three Rules and Takaful -- possess early speed and could apply pressure to Irish War Cry, forcing him to work. Motion, whose Animal Kingdom won the 2011 Kentucky Derby, is aware of the danger.
“It’s going to be a little different this time,” Motion said.
Three Rules was the undisputed kingpin of the 2-year-old division at Gulfstream last summer and fall, reeling off five straight victories in convincing manner. But when he ventured out of South Florida for the first time, he was no match for the nation’s top 2-year-olds, finishing a non-threatening sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita.
Irish War Cry could face his stiffest challenge from Practical Joke, the 3-1 second choice in the Fountain of Youth.
Practical Joke will be using the Fountain to make his 3-year-old debut. Following wins in the Grade I Hopeful and Champagne stakes in New York, the colt capped off his 2016 campaign with a third-place effort in the Breeders’ Cup.
“Going two turns off a layoff like this is a tall order, and I understand that,” said trainer Chad Brown. “As long as he runs well, I’ll be happy to build off this. The way he is training, I would expect him to run well.”
Gunnevera, who was second to Irish War Cry in the Holy Bull, is back to take another shot. Always dangerous trainer Todd Pletcher is sending out Made You Look, who has raced exclusively on grass in six career races. This will be the colt’s first try on dirt.
Made You Look has trained well on dirt, though, and Pletcher believes the colt can handle the surface.
“It’s always been our intention to put him on the dirt at some point,” Pletcher said. “We’re just kind of waiting for the right opportunity.”
The Fountain of Youth will be the final race on the 13-race card, which includes nine stakes.
Motion knows the Fountain will be a tougher test for Irish War Cry.
“This time, people will have expectations, as they should,” Motion said.
-- Gulfstream will offer bettors guaranteed pools in the Late Pick 4, Late Pick 5 and 20-cent Rainbow 6.
The Late Pick 4 will have a guaranteed pool of $600,000 while the Rainbow 6 will have a guaranteed pool of $400,000 and the Late Pick 5 a guaranteed pool of $300,000.
Fountain of Youth Stakes
I. Ortiz Jr.
Irish War Cry
Made You Look
Lookin for Eight