It's never too early to start looking for the Kentucky Derby winner -- or at least some of the contenders who will do well early on the Triple Crown trail and inflate the results of your fantasy stable.
On the other hand, watching the newly turned 3-year-olds is a little like watching Pachinko balls. You know they're bouncing toward the desired goal. But you never know what twists and turns they'll take before they get there.
Case in point: Johannesburg Star.
The colt, a son of Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Johannesburg, struggled through his first four races last year, then broke through to break his maiden by 9 1/2 lengths at Aqueduct a month ago, earning a 102 Beyer Speed Figure. After that effort, owner Bisnath Parboo reportedly turned down a $2 million offer for the colt, according to NYRA media personnel.
And so Johannesburg Star naturally was the favorite in Saturday's $65,000 Count Fleet Stakes at Aqueduct -- an early prep for the Wood Memorial. And yet, the struggles resumed as the colt got the lead but couldn't hold it, surrendering to long shot Pink Viper in deep stretch. The margin at the wire was 1 1/4 length, with Sir Whimsey third.
Pink Viper, a Kentucky-bred son of Smoke Glacken, ran the 1 mile and 70 yards in 1:42.94 under Norberto Arroyo Jr., winning for the second time in his 11th career start.
"He has to be in the race," said Ernie Paragallo of Paraneck Stable, which owns Pink Viper. "When he's in the race, he's aggressive. ... This horse is a tough sucker when he's in a dogfight. ... We don't know what we're going to do with him."
Johannesburg Star's trainer, Joe Parker, said he didn't want his horse as far back as he was. But, he added, "I'm encouraged by the way he made a move from off the pace."
In other weekend racing for 3-year-old with aspirations:
-- E Z Warrior, a Kentucky-bred son of Exploit, came off a six-month layoff to easily win Sunday's $75,000 San Miguel Stakes at Santa Anita, leading all the way to a 1 3/4-length victory over Hurry Up Austin. Noble Court finished third. E Z Warrior, with David Flores just sitting there, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:08.82. "This is what you're looking for when you buy a horse like this," said winning trainer Bob Baffert. E Z Warrior was a $1.2 million yearling purchase at last year's Barrett's March sale. "He was coming off a layoff. But we were confident coming in here because of the way he's been working." Comparing him to an equally diminutive Smarty Jones, Baffert said of E Z Warrior, "He's like a freak of nature. It's hard to find these guys."
-- Buffalo Man came from a pace-stalking position to win Sunday's $100,000 Spectacular Bid Stakes at Gulfstream Park by 1 length over the favorite, Out of Gwedda. Green Vegas finished third. Buffalo Man, an Ontario-bred colt by El Prado, ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.60 with Eddie Castro up. "I wasn't really going to run in this race," said winning trainer Cam Gambolati. "But he was doing so well, I went ahead. The options now are the Holy Bull (Feb. 3), or the Ocala race a week later. We'll talk it over but after the way he ran today, I guess it's time to try the big boys."
-- At Turfway Park in Kentucky, Carnacks Choice stumbled at the start but came along in the stretch and outfinished the favorite, Joe Got Even, to win Saturday's $50,000 Turfway Prevue Stakes by a neck. Cajun Mon was home third. Carnacks Choice, a Florida-bred son of Carson City out of the Tabasco Cat mare Ellesmere, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:15.82. Julien Leparoux was up for trainer Greg Foley. Foley, noting Carnacks Choice has acted up before each of his last two races, said, "We'll probably school him before his next race." The next step toward the Lane's End Stakes in March is next month's 1-mile WEBN Stakes.
In weekend racing for 3-year-old fillies:
-- Baroness Thatcher stalked the early pace in Saturday's $100,000 Santa Ysabel Stakes at Santa Anita, came to the leaders three-wide turning for home and advanced steadily to win by 1/2 length over Runaway Rosie. Mistical Plan finished third as the favorite. Baroness Thatcher, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Johannesburg out of the Gulch mare Natkeeta, ran 1 1/16 mile on a fast track in 1:44.31. Garrett Gomez rode for trainer Patrick Biancone. She broke her maiden at Keeneland's fall meet and has two wins from five starts.
-- Golden Dreamer had things all her own way in Sunday's $65,000 Ruthless Stakes at Aqueduct. Breaking alertly, the New York-bred daughter of Malabar Gold set a brisk pace and finished 3 3/4 lengths ahead of Special Dream, with Small Lies third. Golden Dreamer ran the 6 furlongs on a fast inner track in 1:10.26 under Norberto Arroyo Jr.
-- Laila's Punch took complete charge in the stretch run of Saturday's $50,000 Marshua Stakes at Laurel Park and won off by 6 lengths over Luxury Class. Deep Dish Wildcat finished third. Laila's Punch, a Maryland-bred daughter of Two Punch, ran 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:06.01 for jockey Jeremy Rose. "She's developing so much and she works so fast, I think we might have a good one," said winning trainer Eddie Gaudet.
In other weekend racing:
Scintillaton burst into contention for Hong Kong's Champion Sprint Series with an upset win in Sunday's HSBC Premier Bauhinia Sprint Trophy at Sha Tin. At odds of 11-1 and carrying 133 pounds, Scintillation got home 1 3/4 lengths ahead of Our Jet, with Regency Horse third. But jockey Eric Saint-Martin said the race really was over a furlong from the finish line. "Today the plan was just to cover him up for a little bit and then let him go," Saint-Martin said. "He doesn't like being held up like he was last time. If he stays in this form, he will be a hard horse to beat for the rest of the season." The first leg of the Champion Sprint Series is the Feb. 4 Centenary Sprint Cup, where Scintillation likely would meet Absolute Champion, winner of last month's Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Sprint.
Dixie Meister got first run at the leaders in Saturday's $150,000 San Pasqual Handicap, got to the front in deep stretch and just held on to beat the onrushing longshot Armenian Summer by a nose at the line. Preachinatthebar was third and the favorite, Declan's Moon, faded to finish last of seven after leading briefly on the turn for home. Dixie Meister, a 5-year-old, Texas-bred gelding by Holzmeister, ran 1 1/16 mile on the fast main track in 1:43.18. The race is an early prep for the March 3 Santa Anita Handicap. "He was training good and had a great post (No. 2)," said winning trainer Julio Canani. "He ran his race today."
Sunday, Citronnade led from gate to wire in winning the $150,000 San Gorgonio Handicap by 3 lengths over Rahy's Appeal. The favorite, Three Degrees, rallied from last of seven to save the show spot. Cintronnade, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred daughter of Lemon Drop Kid, ran 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:46.80 for jockey David Flores and trainer Bobby Frankel. "She disappointed me on the dirt," said Frankel. "So I said she's gotta be a grass runner. I think she's going to be a very good filly as we go down the road." It was her fifth win in eight lifetime starts.
A couple of yesteryear's Triple Crown hopefuls -- Sweetnorthernsaint and Sir Greeley -- went off favored in Saturday's $100,000 Hal's Hope Handicap but it was a lightly raced 4-year-old making his first stakes start who pulled off the upset. Chatain, a Kentucky-bred son of Forest Wildcat, stalked the pace, rallied to the lead a furlong from home and just held on to beat Sir Greeley by a head. Sweetnorthernsaint, who chased the pace, finished third, just 1 length farther back. Chatain, off since winning an allowance race at the Meadowlands nearly three months ago, ran the 1 mile in 1:33.87 under Cornelio Velasquez. The colt now has three wins from four starts and a bright future. "I did think he classed up in this race with the two favorites," said winning trainer Angel Penna Jr. "Although, to be honest, I can't really say that I thought he'd win today." He said he will aim for the Grade I Donn Handicap on Feb. 3 if his horse comes back well. Trainer Michael Trombetta said Sweetnorthernsaint, the runner-up to Bernardini in last year's Preakness, is headed to the Sunshine Millions.
Classic Campaign had to wait for running room on the stretch turn in Saturday's $100,000 Fort Lauderdale Stakes, finally got through between rivals and was just up in time to win by a head over Dreadnaught. The favorite, Saint Stephen, finished third. Classic Campaign is a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred gelding by Rahy. Edgar Prado rode for trainer Bill Mott. "I took back like I wanted," said Prado, "but I was concerned turning for home. Luckily, he got a hole between horses."
And in Saturday's $100,000 Mr. Prospector Handicap, Kelly's Landing sat off the pace-setter, Weigella, through good early fractions, surged to the lead entering the stretch and drew clear to win by 1 1/4 lengths over High Finance. Mach Ride finished third. Weigelia faded to finish last of six. Kelly's Landing, a 6-year-old, Kentucky-bred gelding by Patton, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:08.84 under Edgar Prado. Trainer Eddie Kenneally said he will consider the $2 million Golden Shaheen at Nad al Sheeba in Dubai on March 31. "There aren't many opportunities for sprinters to run for that kind of money," he said. "So we'll give that a serious look."
Some Ghost swung four-wide into the stretch turn and advanced determinedly through the lane to win Sunday's $100,000 Albert Dominguez Memorial Handicap by a neck over El Minuto. Romeos Wilson finished third. Some Ghost, a 6-year-old gelding by Ghostly Moves, ran 1 1/16 mile on a fast track in 1:44.61 under Ricardo Jaime.
Sandburr stalked the pace set by Jonesboro in Saturday's $75,0000 Louisiana Breeders' Cup Handicap, went outside the leader on the turn for home and won by 3/4 length. Jonesboro held second by 1/2 length over Patriot Act, the favorite. Sandburr, an 8-year-old, Texas-bred son of Sandpit, ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:45.10 for jockey James Graham.
Tampa Bay Downs
Summer Cruise rallied from mid-pack to win Saturday's $60,000 Minaret Stakes for fillies and mares by 3/4 length over the odds-on favorite, Rgirldoesn'tbluff. Taylor Madison finished third. Summer Cruise, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred filly by Vicar, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.06 for Carlos Montalvo. Trainer Michael Zwiesler said Summer Cruise will stick around Tampa and likely shoot for the Manatee Stakes on Feb. 3 at 7 furlongs.
Grat came from far back to take command in the stretch and win Saturday's $50,000 Glendale Handicap for fillies and mares by 5 3/4 lengths. The pace-setter, Jubilee, finished second and Bend was third. Grat, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred mare by A.P. Indy, got the 1 1/16 mile on firm turf in 1:41.86 for jockey Danny Sorenson.
In Saturday's $75,000 Cotton Fitzsimmons Mile, Night Chapter prompted the pace into the stretch, dueled for the lead and drew off to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Wait in Line and True Dancer dead-heated for second and third. Night Chapter, a 6-year-old, British-bred son of Night Shift, ran the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:36.11 under Brice Blanc. Bobby Frankel owns and trains the horse.
Golden Gate Fields
Bai and Bai jumped right to the front in Saturday's $50,000 Muir Woods Stakes for fillies and mares and waved "bai" to the field. At the wire, she had enough left to hold off the odds-on favorite, Victornia, by 3/4 length. Codi Dee finished third. Bai and Bai, a 4-year-old, Cal-bred filly by Falstaff, ran 1 1/16 mile on a fast track in 1:42.71 for jockey Roberto Gonzalez.