It's the time of year when everyone is looking for the surprise Derby contender, with careful eyes cocked on races that usually prove pedestrian but occasionally turn up a gem.
A year ago, for example, the Count Fleet at Aqueduct proved to be the 3-year-old launching pad for Smarty Jones, who went on to win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and a spot in the breeding shed at Three Chimneys Farm.
This year's renewal of the Count Fleet was scheduled Saturday, with some potential stars in the field, but Aqueduct's card was canceled after three races because of heavy rain and the stakes event will be run next weekend. And across the country, Santa Anita scrubbed its Sunday card after one race, deep-sixing preps for 3-year-olds and for their filly counterparts.
But there were a few other events around the country for 3-year-olds who might be... could be... good ones:
-- Those looking for a clue to the Florida Derby or Kentucky Derby in Saturday's $125,000 Aventura Stakes at Gulfstream Park might have found one in High Fly. High Fly remained undefeated and essentially untested in winning his third race from three starts, flying down the stretch to win by 9 lengths over 34-1 longshot Drum Major, with Magna Graduate another 1 3/4 lengths back in third. The favorite, Deputy Indy, saved ground early but never put in a bid, finishing 10th of 12. High Fly, a Kentucky-bred son of Atticus, ran the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:35.88. "He had never looked a really tough horse in the eye," said winning trainer Bill White. "He still hasn't, but we're on the right track. He's definitely on the Derby trail now so we'll start looking by planning two or three races ahead and see what our options are."
-- Snack dawdled through the early furlongs of Saturday's $50,000 Turfway Prevue Stakes at Turfway Park in Kentucky, then swung five-wide into the stretch and drew off to win by 3 1/4 lengths, leaving some chaos in his wake. Both the second- and third-place finishers were set down for interference at various points in the race, promoting the favorite, Truly Native, to second-place money and Cat Shaker to third. Snack, an Indiana-bred son of Afternoon Deelites, ran 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:17.53 on a muddy track under Ramsey Zimmerman. "I knew he finishes in a big way wherever he is," said Zimmerman, "and it looked like there was enough speed to where they'd be stopping." The race is an early prep for the March 26 Lane's End Stakes. And, no Indiana-bred has won the Kentucky Derby.
In weekend races for 3-year-old fillies:
-- Rush to Glory needed a boost from the stewards to reach the winner's circle after Saturday's $50,000 Marshua Stakes. The Kentucky-bred Wild Rush filly came alongside pace-setting Maysville at mid-stretch, but then was carried out by the leader through the late going and finished second, a neck back. Maysville was disqualified to second for the interference, termed "herding" by the Equibase chart caller. Promenade Girl finished third with an even trip. The 6 furlongs took 1:12.53 over a sloppy track. "She's been very versatile for us," said winning trainer Dale Capuano. "She's a little more seasoned than these fillies are and that's a bit of an edge."
In other weekend racing:
It was raining Saturday and the track was sloppy but that didn't bother Congrats very much. With Tyler Baze aboard, the 5-year-old son of A.P. Indy pressed the pace set by Excessivepleasure, took the lead rounding the final bend and splashed clear to win by an easy 5 1/2 lengths. The favorite, Total Impact, was along for second and Sigfreto completed the trifecta. Congrats ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:41.97. Both Baze and trainer Richard Mandella said the early encouragement helped Congrats better his losing performance in the Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park last month. "Last time, we let him relax a little bit too much," Bazesaid. "He likes being in the race a little bit more." Mandella said he will "look at the (Feb. 6) San Antonio with the (March 5) Big Cap beyond that."
The nasty weather washed Saturday's $150,000 San Gorgonio Handicap off the grass onto the sloppy main track and more than half the original field, including Megahertz, stayed in their stalls. Best of the rest, leading most of the way, was Fencelineneighbor. After breaking slowly, jockey Luis Jauregui sent the 5-year-old daughter of Wild Rush right to the fore and he won by 2 lengths over Uraib. Dolly Wells was third. The 9 furlongs took 1:49.82. Trainer Mike Machowsky said he supplemented Fencelineneighbor in hopes the race would be run on the main track. "If they run it on the grass, we'll scratch and wait for the Sunshine Millions (Distaff)," he said. Fencelineneighbor was fourth in the Sunshine Millions Filly & Mare Turf last year, "but she's so much better on the turf, I think," Machowsky said.
In Saturday's $100,000 Hal's Hope Handicap, Badge of Silver rallied to the lead at the quarter pole, then held on to beat Dynever by a neck at the wire. Contante was a longshot third. Badge of Silver, a 5-year-old son of Silver Deputy, got the 9 furlongs in 1:48.57 with Jerry Bailey up. Badge of Silver recently was moved to Bobby Frankel's barn. "To be honest," Frankel said, "when I saw Dynever coming, I thought we were beat. But he really dug in there."
In Saturday's $100,000 Mr. Prospector Handicap, Saratoga County broke last of 10 starters and took the overland route, but still won by 2 1/2 lengths over Limehouse with All Hail Stormy third. The favorite, Shake You Down, faded badly to finish seventh. Saratoga County, a 4-year-old Valid Expectations colt, ran 6 furlongs in 1:08.99.
Sunday, Union Place dueled down the stretch with Stormy Roman, got the advantage and then held on to beat a late-running Freefourinternet by a neck. Stormy Roman held third, another neck back. The favorite, Timo, finished sixth. Union Place, a 6-year-old, Florida-bred son of Out of Place, ran 1 1/16 mile on firm turf in 1:38.26 with Javier Castellano in the irons.
Also Sunday, Angela's Love shot quickly to the front from the No. 10 post position, then led the rest of the way to win the $60,000 Marshua's River Stakes for fillies and mares by 2 1/2 lengths. Delta Princess was second and the pari-mutuel favorite, Snowdrops, finished third. Angela's Love is a 5-year-old Not for Love mare, bred in Maryland.
Gold Storm let longshot Spooky Mulder set the pace until the field turned for home in Sunday's $60,000 Colonel Power Handicap, then moved to the lead and held off Clock Stopper easily to win by 2 3/4 lengths. Ole Rebel was third under the wire and Spooky Mulder finished fourth and last. Gold Storm, a 5-year-old son of Seeking the Gold, finished the 6 furlongs in stakes-record time of 1:09.19 with E.J. Perrodin up. It was Gold Storm's first start since finishing ninth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint last October while contesting the pace. Trainer Bubba Cascio said Sunday's effort was the result of a conscious effort to get horse to relax. "We figured," he said, "if we could get this horse to sit off those 21 quarters and 43 halves, he'd have more finish in him. It worked out. Now we figure we don't have to be the rabbit anymore."
Crimson Song got the lead on the first turn in Saturday's $75,000 Crescent City Derby for Louisiana-bred 3-year-olds, turned back a challenge entering the stretch and went on to win by 1 length over Zarb's Music Man. Prince T. finished third. Crimson Song, a bay son of Glitterman, got the 1 1/16 mile in 1:46.77 with Robby Albarado up.
Tampa Bay Downs
Slews Final Answer swung four-wide around the leaders in Saturday's $60,000 Minaret Stakes then hit the gas and won by 3 1/2 lenghts over 100-1 longshot Diablosangeleyes. Beautiful Honor was third in a field of 13 fillies and mares. Slews Final Answer, a 6-year-old Seattle Slew mare, finished the 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.54 under Jose Ferrer. "She was doing very well at Payson Park" after finishing third in a Calder overnight stakes on Dec. 13, said Mark Schrieber, assistant to winning trainer Bill Mott. "We thought this would be a little easier spot than Gulfstream." She now has won eight of 21 lifetime starts.
Skip and Go got the best of a three-way battle on the front in Saturday's $50,000 Winsham Lad Handicap, then got clear and won off by 1 1/2 lengths over Two Down Automatic. Beyond Brilliant led the way, faded but held on for third. Skip and Go, a 4-year-old, Texas-bred son of Skip Away, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:36.28.
Legs O'Neal led from the start in Saturday's $50,000 Camelia Stakes for Louisiana-bred fillies and mares and was never headed, winning by 3/4 length over Midnight Delight. Misty Glo was third and the favorite, Kylers Midge, finished fourth. Legs O'Neal is a 5-year-old daughter of Nelson. She ran 7 furlongs in 1:28.51 for Corie Lanerie.
Grimm was on the lead but under pressure most of the way in Saturday's $50,000 Cotton Fitzsimmons Handicap but shrugged off the competition to win by 1 1/2 lengths at the end of the grassy 1 mile. Pure was second and Paladin Power roamed home third. Grimm, an aptly named, 6-year-old son of Hansel, finished in 1:36.66.
News and notes...
We note with great sadness the death of Joe Durso, a 51-year veteran of the New York Times sports pages. Primarily noted as a baseball writer and a member of the writers' and broadcasters' wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Durso also was a distinguished turf writer, especially during the 1990s. He authored several books, worked in broadcasting and taught at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, making him a scholar as well as a gentleman ... It took a certificate of authenticity from an architectural firm and a review by Teleview Racing Patrol to confirm a world-record time of 1:31.41 for a 1-mile race on the turf on Gulfstream Park's opening day. The speedy effort was turned in by Argentine-bred Mr. Light and eclipsed the previous world record of 1:31.63, set by Elusive Quality at Belmont Park on July 4, 1998 ... Churchill Downs announced it has doubled the purse of the Kentucky Derby to $2 million. The Derby was run as a $500,000-added event as recently as 1995. It began with a $1,000 purse in 1875 ... There were no surprises among the finalists for 2004 Eclipse Awards, to be announced Jan. 24. If voters really believed Ghostzapper was the best sprinter in North America last year despite running only once at less than 9 furlongs, he could take home three statues.