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By Gene Kershner

SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

Chances are this year’s Kentucky Derby winner still has not raced in this calendar year.

There are a number of likely candidates running in this weekend’s key prep races. The first leg of the 16-race “Kentucky Derby Championship Series” begins today with the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream and the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds. Points to the top four finishers will increase to 50 for first, 20 for second, 10 for third and 5 for fourth.

The Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park on President’s Day, won by Tapiture, marked the conclusion of the “Prep Season” races that had a 10-4-2-1 point distribution. Both the Fountain of Youth and Risen Star are Grade 2 races run over two turns at 1 1/16 miles.

So have we seen this year’s Derby winner yet? It’s likely we have not.

Of the last five Derby winners, only 2012 winner I’ll Have Another raced before Fountain of Youth weekend, winning the Robert B. Lewis stakes in early February. Orb won last year’s Fountain of Youth on his way to wearing the roses and the 2010 and 2011 winners, Super Saver and Animal Kingdom, did not race until March in their respective years. If you stretch back to 2009 and 50-1 shot Mine That Bird, he didn’t race that year until the last day of February in a non-graded stake at Sunland Park in New Mexico.

This year’s edition of the Fountain of Youth has attracted 13 colts and features allowance winner Commissioner (3-1), a Todd Pletcher trainee who drew the rail in Monday’s post position draw. The son of A.P. Indy has won two races at 9 furlongs for WinStar Farm, owners of Derby winner Super Saver, but will cut back in distance in today’s race.

WinStar President, CEO and Racing Manager Elliott Walden told the racing media earlier in the week that he has a Derby horse in tow in Commissioner.

“I think if you look at Commissioner’s resume, with the allowance race beating Top Billing, and the fact he’s won two races going two turns already, by A.P. Indy, he’d have to be on anybody’s list,” he said. Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez is on the big colt.

Sitting on the outside in post No. 12 is Top Billing (7-2), trained by last year’s Derby winning trainer Claude (Shug) McGaughey and ridden by Joel Rosario. The son of Curlin out of an A.P. Indy mare came back from that allowance loss to defeat a decent allowance field in late January, setting up today’s rematch with Commissioner. The post draw, however, could be difficult to overcome on the speed-favoring track at Gulfstream and he’ll likely hit the board, but is up against it to win from the far outside.

One horse who looks ready to break out is colt General a Rod (5-1). Named after owner J. Armando Rodriguez, and not the polarizing Yankees star, the son of Roman Ruler out of a Dynaformer mare won the Gulfstream Park Derby impressively and will look to stretch out for trainer Michael Maker with the red-hot Javier Castellano in the irons.

With valuable Derby points at stake, even a third place finish can put a horse in the gate on the first Saturday in May. The current over/under points total at the Wynn Las Vegas is 20.5 to qualify under the points system that was unveiled last year. The final qualifier in last year’s Derby, Giant Finish, only needed 10 points to qualify after a number of late defections and injuries plagued last year’s crop.

The other big prep race, the Risen Star Stakes, will take place this afternoon in New Orleans at the Fair Grounds. A full field of 14 colts has entered the race in the Big Easy. Similar to the Fountain of Youth, one of the pre-race favorites, Vicar’s in Trouble (5-2), also drew an outside gate in the prep race serving as a prelude to the Louisiana Derby on March 29.

He’ll be in gate 13, moving inside one gate from the original draw once Bond Holder was scratched due to an injury suffered on the plane en route to New Orleans. Vicar’s in Trouble won his first start going two turns in the Grade 3 LeComte Stakes, a local prep at the Fair Grounds in mid-January.

Current Fair Grounds leading jockey Rosie Napravnik shook off the bad post draw and is confident her colt can still compete.

“He’s very quick out of the gate, and I think there is some other speed in the race and he has the ability to stalk or go to the front,” she said. “It’s not my first choice,” the outside post, “but it could’ve been worse and I think with his tactical ability, we should be able to get a good trip from the outside.”

The LeComte winner will be challenged by several colts looking to punch a ticket to Churchill Downs, including Rise Up (4-1), the Delta Downs Jackpot winner who has won at three different tracks over his career.

Bob Baffert ships in Hoppertunity (8-1), who will be ridden by Martin Garcia. The Any Given Saturday colt was third in the Holy Bull against formidable competition and Baffert is winning at a 32 percent clip when shipping away from Southern California.

A colt who could provide value at his morning line price of 8-1 is another Pletcher hopeful, Intense Holiday. Teaming up with Mike Smith in a trainer/jockey tandem that captured both the Kentucky Oaks and the Belmont Stakes last year makes this Harlan’s Holiday colt more than dangerous at a nice price.

On the Risen Star undercard, the Rachel Alexandra Stakes – a prep race for the Kentucky Oaks – will feature Breeders’ Cup Juvenile disqualification winner Ria Antonia, who is trained by Finger Lakes-based trainer Jeremiah Englehart.

The 37-year-old trainer and the filly’s connections have not counted out attempting the Derby trail. A win in the Rachel Alexandra would give her enough points to qualify for the Oaks and maybe take a shot at a Derby series race next time out.

“She would still have to wow me a little bit, you know first start off the layoff to try the boys,” Englehart said. “If the field comes up for the Louisiana Derby as big as the Risen Star then we’d have to take a shot somewhere. I just don’t know where it would be.”

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.