HALLANDALE BEACH, Fl. -- It would be very easy to get carried away with Gunnevera's dominating, off-the-pace victory in Saturday's Fountain of Youth Stakes here at Gulfstream. I mean, he wasn't even in the picture early, yet he was the only horse in the picture late in the run to the wire. His effort was indeed a fine one. But Gunnevera's score didn't happen in a vacuum, and it demands a degree of perspective.
Gunnevera was no match for Irish War Cry in last month's Holy Bull Stakes. Yes, Gunnevera was hustled a bit to be too close to the early pace than is good for him, and he did steady on the rail on the far turn, causing a loss of momentum. In the end, however, Gunnevera just wasn't as good as Irish War Cry that day, and that is because Irish War Cry controlled a slow, uncontested pace.
But the pace setup was entirely different in the Fountain of Youth. The early fractions were much more demanding, if not downright destructive. This time, Irish War Cry was unable to control the pace. More importantly, he was unable to effectively settle just off of it.
Where the fractions of the Holy Bull were against Gunnevera, the splits of the Fountain of Youth were very much in his favor. The circumstances Saturday were similar to those Gunnevera encountered in the Delta Downs Jackpot in his final start at 2, which he also dominated. Now, not every horse capitalizes when conditions favorably align. So it is to Gunnevera's credit that he did Saturday. Again.
At this point, it is fair to label Gunnevera as pace dependent. In general, that infers a weakness that can be exploited. But Gunnevera's type of pace dependency isn't necessarily a bad thing in the context of the Kentucky Derby. If you wanted to win the Derby, and had a horse with a style that hinges on race development, you would likely prefer one who could close into a contested pace instead of one who needs an easy trip on the front end. Really, how often do horses get away with easy, uncontested leads in the Kentucky Derby?
In a larger sense, however, Gunnevera's Fountain of Youth victory, in concert with J Boys Echo's perfect setup score slightly earlier in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, walloping the now-exposed favorite El Areeb, only underscored this:
More than other Kentucky Derby classes of recent vintage, the most accomplished members of this Derby class so far this year have fashioned their success in consistent combination with perfect setups and perfect trips. Not one recognized Derby prep so this year has been won by a horse who overcame so much as a meaningfully unfavorable setup, let alone adversity. And one could argue, at least at this stage, that this does not speak well of the relative quality of this crop.
Consider these 2017 Kentucky Derby preps, the winners, and how they got the job done:
Jerome Stakes (El Areeb): Easy trip in the mud over a suspect field.
Smarty Jones Stakes (Uncontested): Totally loose on the lead in the slop.
Lecomte Stakes (Guest Suite): Perfect pace setup in a slow race.
Withers Stakes (El Areeb): Easy trip against another suspect group.
The Holy Bull (Irish War Cry): Capitalized on a soft, uncontested lead.
Robert. B. Lewis (Royal Mo): Controlled a comfortable pace over weak field.
Risen Star Stakes (Girvin): Enjoyed a golden inside-out trip.
I left out a couple of recognized and meaningful 2017 Kentucky Derby preps, specifically the Sham, the Sam F. Davis, and the Southwest. But the winners of those races also did not overcome any sort of legitimate adversity or significant race dynamic.
We have only two more weeks of penultimate Kentucky Derby preps before the final round of preps begin, yet the Derby picture seems even more unclear than usual, which says a lot. Issues involving McCraken and Classic Empire have certainly helped to muddy the waters.
But in a greater sense, with one prep after another won by perfect-trip winners, it makes it guesswork identifying which Derby candidates might have what it takes to get it done when circumstances aren't so favorable.
Quick Saturday notes
* Unique Bella is something else. She missed her break in the Santa Ysabel at Santa Anita, ran up on an opponent's heels into the first turn and had to bull her way through between rivals to avoid being stopped. She looked in upper stretch like she might get swamped by a talented and accomplished Grade 1 stakes winner in Abel Tasman, and then suddenly rebroke, and disposed of that challenge with ease. Seriously, how many gears does Unique Bella have?
* Jose Ortiz is a monster rider right now, and if you need any evidence, check out his masterful exhibition on Celestine (a willing accomplice, it should be noted) in Gulfstream's Sand Springs.
* Pace setup or not, Suffused showed in the The Very One Stakes at Gulfstream that she is much more than a 10- to 12-furlong stayer. She as ridden by Jose Ortiz, too.
* Ticonderoga, winner of Gulfstream's Palm Beach in his first start since his excellent fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, has oodles of talent. Wish I could say the same about the group of 3-year-old fillies who contested the Davona Dale in the next race, but I can't.
* Although he was beaten almost six lengths by Gunnevera, I can see why folks are optimistic about Practical Joke following his second in the Fountain of Youth in his first start since the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. But what about Three Rules? He finished third, was beaten only a half-length by Practical Joke, and I think he ran the much better race.
Three Rules set the Fountain of Youth pace. The others who were in closest attendance early to Three Rules were Irish War Cry, Takaful, and Made You Look. Irish War Cry finished seventh, 15 1/2 lengths behind Three Rules; Takaful finished eighth, 19 3/4 lengths behind Three Rules; and Made You Look finished ninth, 34 3/4 lengths behind Three Rules.
I still think Three Rules is at his best going one turn. But he is a runner.
* I liked J Boys Echo in the Withers. Yes, he had a wide trip, but he couldn't even get second that day after having every chance from a horse in True Timber who stumbled badly at the start and was then hard sent. I guess J Boys Echo improved in the Gotham. And give Cloud Computing good marks for finishing second in the Gotham by a huge gap off just a sprint win in his only start.