This man has some planning to do
Photo by Toni Pricci
This man has some planning to do
HALLANDALE, Fla., February 23, 2013—And so it has begun, the “Road to Kentucky Derby Championship Series,” the points back-loaded portion of the run-up to America’s Race.

Thank goodness we’ve finally reached the part of the schedule that really matters, when the scores begin to change in earnest. Mercifully, no more premature ejaculating of Top 10, 12, 15 or 20 leading Kentucky Derby Contender lists.

In the end, what will the Fountain of Youth and Risen Star results mean in the big picture? Fountain of Youth participants are 0-for-22 over the last 10 years. Risen Star horses have matched that futility, going 0-for-18 over the same period.

It hasn’t all been a pointless exercise, however. Last year’s Fountain of Youth winner Union Raga, did win the Belmont, and the 2011 Risen Star winner, Mucho Macho Man, was a good third in Louisville two years ago.

At this juncture, only today’s 50-point winners seem assured a spot in the Derby. Last year at this point, 18 three-year-olds had enough graded stakes earnings to make the Louisville slugfest; $200,000-plus.

And when it comes to Derby eligibility, less is definitely more--what with 135 graded stakes in which to earn dollars, as opposed to 36 races this year in which points can be won.

When Orb dug down deep to overtake odds-on Violence in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, he likely punched his ticket to Louisville.

“I’m not worried about the Kentucky Derby,” said Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey of the eligibility consequences of Orb’s victory, before quickly reversing his field.

“Of course I’m worried about the Kentucky Derby. I’ve been worried about it since I started rubbing horses in 1972,” joked the Lexington, Kentucky native.

But now Derby fans will begin taking Orb seriously. “I’ll talk to the Phipps’ and Stuart Janney and so what they want to do and go from there.”

Obviously, yesterday was a big step for the leggy son Malibu Moon from the Unbridled mare, Lady Liberty, and for his trainer.

“I was concerned about the one post and the mile and a sixteenth. I would have liked it to be a mile and an eighth, it wasn’t…but it worked out. The strides he's made this winter are just absolutely incredible.”

Not so much for the highly touted Violence, the 3-5 public choice, who finished a half- length behind. Tracking a hot pace of :23.11 and :45.45--“if they slow down he’s going to catch them,” McGaughey thought when he saw the early fractions.

“We ended up being close to a hot pace,” said Todd Pletcher, trainer of the runner-up. “When he made the lead he kind of idles a little bit.

Orb's future gets brighter by the day
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Orb's future gets brighter by the day
“He did the same kind of thing in his last race where he waited on horses. I think Violence was able to dig in pretty well actually…we just came out on the short end.”

The final time of 1:42.24 was very solid, the final sixteenth a quite respectable :06.87.

Fair Grounds, meanwhile, has always had this aura of upset about it and Saturday was no exception. I’ve Struck a Nerve rallied relentlessly from the middle of the nation’s longest stretch to narrowly defeat Code West by a nose at the wire, returning a cool $272.40.

It was another nose back to the Pletcher-trained Palace Malice in third and another half-length back to LeComte winner Oxbow, the leader into the stretch.

Favorite at 8-5, Normandy Invasion was the victim of horrible circumstances: Just read the official footnote:

“Normandy Invasion broke a bit slow then bobbled, lugged out while rank into the first turn, drifted five wide midway through that bend, was reserved while well back on the outside, went three then four wide into the far turn, moved to six wide outside the quarter pole, came seven wide into the stretch, gained ground on the outside and finished well but was too late.”

For his first race of the season, like Violence’s, it was a good race to build on, but in Normandy Invasion’s case, he gets no points for finishing a length behind the winner, beaten two noses and two half-lengths.

Joel Rosario steps lively on Mark Hennig's filly
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Joel Rosario steps lively on Mark Hennig's filly
If Normandy Invasion doesn’t win the Wood Memorial, likely his next start, or whatever 100-point nine furlong prep he runs in next time, he’ll be outside the Derby starting gate looking in.

While many did not even know his name until yesterday, I’ve Struck a Nerve is the Derby Points leader with 51 followed by Orb with 50. Violence picked up 20 and is now third on the list with 30 and the dead-heat leaders going into the weekend, juvenile champion Shanghai Bobby and Goldencents, are next with 24 each.

War Emblem was the last Risen Star participant to earn Derby glory in 2002 but needed to stop off at Hawthorne Race Course to make the cut. Thunder Gulch, in 1995, was the last Fountain of Youth winner to repeat on May’s first Saturday.

But the points are that there’s still a long way to go.

Bets n' Pieces: Shug McGaughey also won the G3 Canadian Turf on Saturday’s card with heavily favored Data Link, giving Javier Castellano his third win on the day…Trainer Mark Hennig put himself on the Road to the Kentucky Oaks with Davona Dale winner Live Lively. The Gulfstream Park Oaks is likely next up…Todd Pletcher was not shut out yesterday, sending out Unlimited Budget to a comprehensive victory in Fair Grounds’ G3 Rachel Alexandra, extending the three-year-old filly’s record to 3-for-3.