Valid Wager was bred to be a sprinter, bought by a trainer who favors sprinters, and has run in sprints in six of his eight races. Now, Mike Mollica will be learning whether the son of Valid Appeal has that extra dimension, the ability to carry his weight around two turns.
The test is today's $200,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Florida's Gulfstream Park. The 1 1/16-mile prep for the Kentucky Derby is dotted with horses whose trainers, like Mollica, are looking for guideposts that might lead them to Churchill Downs on May 6.
Also in the 12-horse field is Thunder Gulch, who has much in common with Valid Wager. Both horses have shipped to Florida from California, where they were dusted by Afternoon Deelites as 2-year-olds.
Valid Wager already has had a Gulfstream tuneup, having won the seven-furlong Hutcheson by 3 1/2 lengths three weeks ago for his fourth victory in eight starts. That day, Mr. Greeley set ridiculous fractions--the first half-mile flashed by in 44 seconds--before Valid Wager and jockey Martin Pedroza gobbled him up in the stretch. A year ago, Holy Bull also won the Hutcheson, at a time when the future horse of the year's stamina was also being questioned.
Mollica purchased Valid Wager for $95,000 as an unraced 2-year-old for Bob and Beverly Lewis of Newport Beach. In the colt's only races longer than seven furlongs, he lost the lead and finished second in the one-mile Arlington-Washington Futurity, and he held on to win by a head in another mile race, the California Juvenile at Bay Meadows.
"The beauty of this horse is that he stays close," Mollica said. "He is always the one to catch when it comes time to rock and roll. It seems to me that the serious competition will come from horses with the same running style. Suave Prospect, Thunder Gulch and Jambalaya Jazz are all closers. It's a big field, and they're going to have to go wide or weave their way between horses. We'll be the one to catch in the lane."
Jambalaya Jazz, who would be on a four-race winning streak but for a disqualification in his last outing, is the 3-1 favorite from the No. 10 post. Thunder Gulch is 4-1 on the morning line, followed by Suave Prospect at 5-1 and Valid Wager at 6-1.
Thunder Gulch, a winner at 1 1/8 miles in New York as a 2-year-old, was shipped to California at the end of the year and was a distant second, 6 1/2 lengths behind Afternoon Deelites, in the Hollywood Futurity. For the Fountain of Youth, Mike Smith takes over the ride for Corey Nakatani.
"Nakatani had him so far back in the Futurity that he would have had to be Secretariat to be in the race," said Wayne Lukas, Thunder Gulch's trainer. "I'm not saying he would have won, but he would have been a closer second. I think we've put a little bit more speed in him. He'll be laying closer to the pace this time."
Lukas' top 3-year-old is Timber Country, last year's champion juvenile, who's scheduled to run in the San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita on March 4.
Asked about Afternoon Deelites' easy victory over four opponents last Sunday in the San Vicente, Lukas said, "I thought he ran very well. I don't think it was a hard race. He dominated his field. With his turn of foot, seven furlongs is a nice distance for him.
"I think the Derby winner will come out of a California area code. I don't think it's by accident that two horses are getting all the hype and all the attention in the Las Vegas future book. One is a champion (Timber Country) and the other one (Afternoon Deelites) is undefeated."
Mr. Greeley, who bled from the lungs while finishing second in the Hutcheson, has been put on the back burner by Nick Zito, who trains six horses nominated for the Triple Crown series.
Zito has been the man of the decade at the Derby, winning with Go For Gin last year and Strike The Gold in 1991, and finishing ninth with Thirty Six Red in 1990. His main candidates for the Florida Derby, at Gulfstream on March 11, are Suave Prospect and Kresa.
Zito didn't become the trainer of Suave Prospect until January, when one of his clients, Bill Condren, bought a 50% interest. Condren was a partner in all three of Zito's Kentucky Derby horses, and his investment in Suave Prospect in effect forced Mike Sherman, the original 100% owner of the horse, to fire his son as trainer. Lee Sherman had trained Suave Prospect for his first 11 races, before Zito took over for the colt's eight-length victory at Gulfstream on Jan. 21.
"It's very, very difficult for a father to have a good horse and not have his son train him," Mike Sherman said. "But that's something you deal with when you sell horses."
Zito is still trying to cork the energy that the hyperactive Suave Prospect generates.
"He's wild in the mornings," Zito said. "We have trouble holding him. That could be good and it could be bad. Maybe he just wants to train himself."
Horse Racing Notes
Wekiva Springs, whose six-race winning streak ended when he ran third behind Dare And Go and Dramatic Gold in the Strub Stakes, has a crack on the inside of his right front hoof and is doubtful for the Santa Anita Handicap on March 11. Trainer Bob Hess Jr., who discovered the crack Thursday, said that the colt is "60-40" to run in the Big 'Cap. The hoof will be treated for a few days and then patched. "He came out of the Strub with some minor soreness, but I thought that was because he got bruised," Hess said. "The combination of a hard track and the wet weather may have made the foot brittle. I don't like to make excuses, but it's possible that he had a blind quarter crack going into the Strub."
Serena's Song, winner of the Santa Ynez Stakes on Jan. 29, drew the inside post position in a field of nine for Sunday's $150,000 Las Virgenes Stakes at Santa Anita. Also in the field is Cat's Cradle, who was second in the Santa Ynez after winning a stake for California-breds on Jan. 7. Next to Serena's Song in the gate for the one-mile race will be Urbane, Wilga, Ski Dancer, Dixie Pearl, Cat's Cradle, Kuda, Favored One and Jewel Princess. . . . Corey Nakatani rode three winners Friday and holds a 52-38 lead over Kent Desormeaux in the meet standings.
* Times staff writer Bob Mieszerski contributed to this story.