With the Run for the Roses now shaping up to be very competitive, many owners and trainers are still hoping to get their horses into the race.
But only 20 horses can start in the Kentucky Derby. If more are entered, starting positions are allocated based on graded stakes earnings so Saturday's races are almost the last chance for contenders to earn a spot in the starting gate for the May 7 classic under the Churchill Downs twin spires.
The $1 million, Grade I Arkansas Derby, at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, arguably is the hotter of Saturday's heats. It will be the 75th running of the event, which caps the "Racing Festival of the South" at the central Arkansas spa city.
Headlining that race is a colt based in California -- The Factor, the 7-5 morning-line favorite from trainer Bob Baffert's string. The Factor won the major local prep for the Arkansas Derby, the Rebel Stakes, last month and has shipped back and forth to his home base since then. He will break from the No. 3 gate in a field of 13 with Martin Garcia in for the ride.
There are other winners in the field, though. Among them are Smarty Jones Stakes hero Caleb's Posse and Southwest Stakes victor Archarcharch -- the pair that finished second and third behind The Factor in the Rebel.
Nehro, who finished second in the Louisiana Derby as a huge longshot, will try to validate that performance Saturday, and Louisiana Derby fourth-place finisher Elite Alex will try to better that effort.
Trainer Todd Pletcher took the worst of the recent upsets as his previously undefeated Uncle Mo finished a dull third in the Wood Memorial. Pletcher will send out a pair in the Arkansas Derby with Brethren, a half-brother to 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver the better fancied.
Another pair from California could figure. J P's Gusto finished second in the Southwest Stakes and Sway Away was second in the Rebel. Both started their careers in California.
At Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., Santiva, winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club last fall at Churchill Downs, heads a field of 12 entered for the $750,000, Grade I Blue Grass. This will be the 87th running of the fixture and 19 Kentucky Derby winners have come into that race from a run in the Blue Grass.
In addition to his win in Louisville, Santiva finished second last October in the Dixiana Breeders' Futurity over the Keeneland all-weather track. He was second in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds in his only previous start this year.
Oddsmaker Mike Battaglia installed Santiva as the 3-1 morning-line favorite.
King Congie, scratched from the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park three weeks ago because of a muscle strain, is the second pick in the early line. He last ran on the turf at Gulfstream Park more than two months ago -- one of several in the field who have experience on the grass.
Brilliant Speed finished behind King Congie at Gulfstream on the turf. Wilkinson comes into the Blue Grass off a sixth-place finish in the Louisiana Derby but won the Lecomte at Fair Grounds earlier in the year.
The other graded stakes winner in the field is Joes Blazing Aaron, who captured the Palm Beach Stakes on the grass course at Gulfstream.
Looking for the "throwdown" win will be Sensational Slam, owned by celebrity chef and dedicated horse owner Bobby Flay. Sensational Slam won the Fred "Cappy" Capossela at Aqueduct in his last start. Another up-and-comer on the grass and artificial surfaces is Newsdad, who finished third in the Palm Beach in his last outing.
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