There was a little problem in the winner's circle at Florida's Gulfstream Park last Saturday. After Fly So Free had delivered a smashing six-length victory in the 1[1/16]-mile Fountain of Youth Stakes, he refused to pose for the photographers. The 3-year-old colt tossed his head, pawed the ground and pranced about until Jim Raftery, the veteran track photographer, told trainer Scotty Schulhofer to turn the horse away from the noisy crowd in the grandstand and point him toward the track. That did the trick. The big chestnut colt finally settled down, and everybody got to take their snaps.
"Citation was like that," Raftery told Schulhofer. "He wouldn't stand still in the winner's circle, so you had to turn him around the other way."
"Well, let's just hope he can run like Citation," said Schulhofer, 64, a big grin spreading across his leathery face.
Of course, it was far too soon to put Fly So Free in the same category with the immortal who swept the Triple Crown for Calumet Farm in 1948. Nevertheless, his resounding win before a sun-baked crowd of 17,240 firmly established Fly So Free as the horse to beat in the 117th Kentucky Derby on May 4.
A Kentucky-bred son of the stallion Time for a Change, Fly So Free went into the Fountain of Youth as the 2-5 favorite. Last year's 2-year-old champion colt by virtue of his three-length victory in the $1 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile last October, Fly So Free opened this year's Triple Crown campaign with a gutsy, come-from-behind win in Gulfstream's Feb. 2 Hutcheson Stakes, his fifth victory in seven career starts.
But the Fountain of Youth posed a new set of challenges for the colt. It was Fly So Free's first race around two turns, and he drew the No. 1 post position, meaning that he could easily get trapped in traffic on the rail. He also had to carry the high weight of 122 pounds, giving away from three to 10 pounds to his nine rivals in the best field of 3-year-old thoroughbreds assembled so far this year.
"I thought if they were ever going to get him, this might be the time," said Schulhofer. After stalking a swift early pace of :22[3/5] for a quarter of a mile and :45[4/5] for the half, jockey Jose Santos urged Fly So Free into the lead on the far turn. But at the top of the stretch, instead of drawing away, Fly So Free appeared to lose his concentration for a few strides, allowing Moment of True, a long shot who was in second place, to close some ground and create the illusion of a challenge.
"When he heard that other horse coming, I hit him five or six times with the whip, and he took off," Santos said. "This horse is unbelievable. He can do anything he wants to do."
Moment of True held on for second, a length and a quarter ahead of Subordinated Debt. Oregon, who is just one of the 27 Kentucky Derby nominees of training magnate D. Wayne Lukas, was four lengths back in fourth place. The highly regarded Hansel, who was making his first start since winning the Arlington-Washington Futurity on Sept. 22, finished fifth. The winning time, a pedestrian 1:44[1/5], is misleading because of the easy way Fly So Free won the race. Even Schulhofer seemed amazed.
"This is a real good horse," he said. "He's got some charisma about him. Just like today, he played around at the top of the stretch and still won by six. How many horses can do that?"