Trainer Antonio Sano reported Sunday morning that Gunnevera was “happy and sound” one day after capturing the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) by 5 3/4 lengths at Gulfstream Park.
“He’s very good this morning, 100 percent sound,” Sano said. “He’s very good, the horse.”
Gunnevera was sent off the 4-1 third choice behind even-money favorite Irish War Cry and 3-1 second pick Practical Joke. He raced in last in the 10-horse field early before following as Practical Joke rallied to catch leader Three Rules entering the turn.
Practical Joke seemed to stall upon collaring the front runner, but Gunnevera powered on by, pulling clear to finish 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.25 and earn 50 points toward a starting berth in the May 6 Kentucky Derby (G1).
“It was very exciting. The horse demonstrated that he was the best horse in the race,” Sano stated. “Right now, the horse has demonstrated he’s the best, to me.”
Gunnevera currently ranks first on the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard with 64 total points. He previously captured the Delta Downs Jackpot (G3) by 5 3/4 lengths to close out his juvenile campaign and opened 2017 with a runner-up effort in the Holy Bull Stakes (G2) on February 4.
“(Jockey) Javier (Castellano) is a friend of mine. He’s very confident in the horse,” Sano said of the rider who has piloted the colt in his past three races. “(Gunnevera) a very strong closer.”
The conditioner added the chestnut son of Dialed In is “90 percent” likely to run in the Florida Derby (G1) on April 1 in his final prep for the Kentucky Derby.
Practical Joke ran well in second while making his first start since a third-place finish in last November’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). The Into Mischief colt suffered his first loss in that latter event after taking both the Hopeful Stakes (G1) at Saratoga and Champagne Stakes (G1) at Belmont Park.
Trainer Chad Brown said via text Sunday morning that Practical Joke “looked good so far” at Palm Meadows and that there are “no plans moving forward yet.”
Three Rules, seeking his first win since sweeping the Florida Sire Stakes series at Gulfstream last year, was pressured by Irish War Cry while setting the early pace in the Fountain of Youth before shaking loose of that rival. He was eventually collared by both Practical Joke and Gunnevera.
The Jose Pinchin-trained son of Gone Astray was in fine fettle after missing second by a half-length.
“He came out of it good,” Pinchin said. “I thought he ran a very good race. I thought he ran very well considering the track was slow and he didn’t get a break. (Irish War Cry) really went with him the first five furlongs, and Gunnevera passed him but he stuck with (Practical Joke). It was a good run.”
Pinchin added that Three Rules has “a lot of options” and didn’t rule out a return in the Florida Derby.
“Right now it’s up to the owners, so I’ll wait to hear from them,” he said.
Irish War Cry entered the Fountain of Youth unbeaten from three starts, including his 3 3/4-length win over Three Rules in the February 4 Holy Bull Stakes (G2) while making his sophomore bow, but faded Saturday to be seventh, beaten a total of 21 3/4 lengths, under the wire.
Trained by Graham Motion, the Curlin colt was doing well Sunday morning.
“Really, he seems fine. I have no issues with him,” Motion said. “He seemed to cool out fine and he looked good this morning. It’s a real head-scratcher.
“The one thing I blame myself for perhaps is not telling (jockey) Joel (Rosario) he should have taken a hold of him and taken him back,” Motion added. “I think to compete in these races, at some point you’ve got to be able to be adaptable to different scenarios. This horse, if he’s going to compete at this level, he’s got to be able to relax.
“I think it was a combination of maybe laying a little too close to a pretty good pace on what was a drying-out, cuppy racetrack and maybe just regressing off his last race when he ran such a big race.”
The Fountain of Youth wasn’t on Motion’s radar for Irish War Cry to begin with, but the New Jersey-bred colt had been doing so well following his Holy Bull romp the trainer decided to take a chance instead of training up to the Florida Derby.
“I certainly considered not running him yesterday,” Motion admitted. “From a handicapping point of view, he jumped so far forward in the Holy Bull there was every opportunity he was going to regress in this race but I felt that his regression would still be good enough to be very competitive, and he certainly trained so well I had no reason to think that he couldn’t run on Saturday. He was in such great form in everything he’d done since the Holy Bull.
“It’s easy to be an armchair quarterback the next day and second-guess your decisions. The good thing is right now he seems to be in good shape.”
While Irish War Cry will stay in Florida for now, the Florida Derby may no longer be a target.
“I’ve got to sit on him for a couple of weeks and see where we’re at. My instant gut reaction is I would have a hard time running this horse back in four weeks off of that kind of a race,” Motion said.
“I don’t want to make a hasty decision. Whatever the decision, he’s not going anywhere for a couple of weeks. I’ll keep him down here while we try to figure out the next step.”