HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. -- Under normal circumstances, an undefeated 3-year-old trained by Todd Pletcher heading into an important Kentucky Derby prep like Saturday's Grade 2 Fountain of Youth would be attracting much of the attention in the days leading up to the race.
But such is not the case with Zulu, who is taking a backseat to the more-accomplished trio of Mohaymen, Awesome Banner, and Awesome Speed in the prerace chatter.
Zulu, a son of Bernardini, opened his career here this winter with two impressive victories, including a 7-1/4-length allowance triumph going seven furlongs over a sloppy track Jan. 15. He completed his preparation for the 1-1/16-mile Fountain of Youth on Sunday at Palm Beach Downs, breezing an easy half-mile in 48.21 seconds under regular rider John Velasquez, much to Pletcher's satisfaction.
"He breezed by himself, got into a comfortable rhythm and clicked off twelves all the way around," said Pletcher. "He looked good and galloped out well. We love what he's done in his previous two starts. There are easier spots to shop around for, but the horse is 2 for 2 at Gulfstream, and we feel like we've got to test the waters and see where we stand even though we know it's going to be a tall order."
Zulu was one of three likely Fountain of Youth starters to work Sunday, along with Awesome Speed and Cherry Wine.
Awesome Speed, the winner of the one-mile Mucho Macho Man Stakes in his 3-year-old debut, worked a bullet half-mile in 48.30 at Palm Meadows.
"He went great," said trainer Alan Goldberg, who was on hand for the work. "He galloped out in a minute and change and pulled up three-quarters in 1:14. He came back fine and not blowing. We're ready."
With Joel Rosario, who rode Awesome Speed in the Mucho Macho Man, sidelined with a broken wrist, Goldberg will turn the reins over to Irad Ortiz Jr. in the Fountain of Youth.
Cherry Wine, an impressive allowance winner here Jan. 9, worked five furlongs from the half-mile pole in 1:00.14 and galloped out six panels in 1:13.40 for trainer Dale Romans at Gulfstream Park on Sunday.
Unified impresses in debut
Most of the buzz here Sunday centered around the performance of Unified, a 3-year-old son of Candy Ride who launched his career with an eye-catching three-length victory and earned a 99 Beyer Speed Figure after completing six furlongs in 1:08.95.Unified is trained by Jimmy Jerkens for Centennial Farm.
"He'd been training great for the last month, and though you never know who you're running up against, we'd have been disappointed if he didn't run real well," said Jerkens. "We had him in at the beginning of the Belmont meet, and he came up with an ankle, so we had to stop and turn him out. No surgery or anything like that, just a little inflammation.
"He couldn't have broken any sharper [Sunday]. It looked like they opened his doors before the others today. He looks like a typical Candy Ride, the good ones, and he's got Victory Union on the dam's side, and they're pretty precocious the first time out. We don't usually like to crack them first time, but sometimes the bloodlines supersede there."
Jerkens said he hasn't given any thought as to what might be next for Unified.
"It looked like he galloped out strong, and he never acts like he gets weak at the end of any of his works, so I think he'll go longer," said Jerkens. "We're certainly pretty excited about him, that's for sure."
Jerkens also said that Breeders' Cup Classic runner-up Effinex continues to work forwardly in preparation for his 2016 debut. Idle since winning the Grade 1 Clark Handicap on Nov. 27, Effinex breezed six furlongs in 1:15 at Palm Meadows on Friday. It was his third work following his arrival in south Florida at the end of January.
"We could try to make the Santa Anita Handicap, but that's asking a lot, coming back at a mile and one-quarter, even though his record at that distance is credible," said Jerkens. "First time out of the box, shipping all the way over there, I don't know. But it's a million-dollar race, and a lot of the horses are going to Dubai, so if it looks like a good spot, maybe. We need to decide quick, that's for sure. We'll probably know after his next work."
Strong field for Davona Dale
The field for Saturday's Grade 2 Davona Dale figures to come up short but select and will include Lewis Bay, who will make her first start since winning the Grade 2 Demoiselle, a 1-1/8-mile race at Aqueduct on Nov. 29. The homebred daughter of Bernardini is trained by Chad Brown for Alpha Delta Stable LLC.
"She's had a nice string of works at Palm Meadows; she's doing well," said Brown. "She's won at one turn before, so turning her back to a mile shouldn't be a problem, and it should be a good starting point for her coming off the layoff."
The Davona Dale is a prep for the premier 3-year-old filly race of the meet, the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks on April 2.
The field for the Davona Dale is expected to include the unbeaten and untested Cathryn Sophia and the unbeaten Dearest, with Grade 2 winner Carina Mia also listed as probable by the racing office as of the weekend.
One 3-year-old filly who likely already has punched her ticket to the Gulfstream Oaks is Off the Tracks, following her easy 4-1/4-length victory in Sunday's Margate Handicap. The win was the third lopsided triumph in as many starts for the good-looking daughter of Curlin, who was making her first start since winning the Grade 3 Schuylerville in equally impressive fashion seven months ago.
Trainer Roderick Rodriguez said after the race that he had Off the Tracks only about "70 percent" fit for the Margate, and that the Gulfstream Oaks likely would be next on her agenda, with the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks on May 6 as his primary goal.