By Gene Kershner
The Kentucky Derby Championship Series heats up this weekend with the most valuable races to date as we move into the first leg of the new points system after the conclusion on Monday of the Prep Season. The next eight qualifying races will be worth 50-20-10-5 points to the top four finishers.
The Derby trail will hit Florida and Louisiana this weekend with the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park and the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds. The Risen Star presents the first real opportunity to see just how Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens’ comeback is coming along. The NBC and HRTV analyst ended his seven-year retirement in January and will ride Proud Strike (8-1) for trainer Steve Asmussen on Saturday at the Fair Grounds.
Over a year ago he was starring in the HBO Series “Luck” which was canceled prematurely last March amid the death of several horses during filming. On Tuesday afternoon in a call with the national racing media Stevens addressed some of the obstacles he’s faced on the comeback trail.
“Obstacle number one as far as the critics, you know I'm getting to turn 50 years old. I knew that I was going to be under the microscope. You're always under the microscope in this sport regardless of what you've done the day before, let alone seven years prior to. And, you know, I had thought about this through midway last summer and I had a plan that I put in place and tried to execute it and really didn't know how things were going to turn out, what the expectation was going to be and it's been overwhelming. Unexpected and I'm just honored to be back riding the type of horses for the people that I'm riding for and to get a phone call to go in and ride a colt like Proud Strike in the Risen Star is beyond my biggest dreams,” said Stevens.
Stevens is pumped about the opportunity to be back on the Derby trail and was ecstatic upon getting the call on Proud Strike. “He's been progressing with every one of his races and when I got the phone call I was pretty excited. And he looks like a colt that has just taken huge steps up with every race; and if he takes a big step off of that maiden breaker then, you know, it's good enough.”
The maiden race he references was a 11/16-mile race in January over the Fair Grounds surface where he pulled away to a 7-1/2 length victory. He will face much tougher company on Saturday afternoon in a full field of 14 colts. His biggest challengers will be Grade 2 Remsen winner Normandy Invasion (5-2), Grade 3 LeComte winner Oxbow (5-1), west coast shipper Code West (6-1) and Mylute (6-1), a son of Breeders’ Cup sprint champion Midnight Lute for trainer Tom Amoss. Code West looks the most interesting of the bunch, coming off a second place finish behind Super Ninety Nine, who decimated the Southwest field at Oaklawn on Monday afternoon. Baffert will also add blinkers to Code West.
Should Stevens bag the 50 points with a win, he may have a tough choice to make as he is scheduled to cover the Derby as an analyst for NBC.” If I actually think I've got a legitimate chance to win the Kentucky Derby, I'm going to be out on a horseback and NBC will be riding with me. I think that we're in a position right now that that opportunity is there. I don't want to say yes or no because it's like putting the cart in front of the horse, but I'm very optimistic and I've got the support of NBC whichever decision winds up being made and the horses at the end of the day are going to make the decision for me.”
Gulfstream Park has 11 horses entered for the Fountain of Youth, and Todd Pletcher will once again, be in the role of favorite with a heavily favored Violence (9-5), a colt sired by Medaglia d’Oro and ridden by Javier Castellano. The Cash Call Futurity winner has raced just three times over three different tracks winning each race. If you’re trying to beat him, I’d look to Orb for trainer Shug McGaughey with Johnny Velazquez aboard. He’s second off the layoff and second time Lasix, so he might be ready to step up after posting a sharp workout on Feb. 18.
It should be a great weekend of racing to kick off the first leg of the Championship Series, so buckle up as the Derby trail heats up.