With key races at Fair Grounds and Gulfstream Park, either a handful of favorites will run well and start to shake out the field for the Derby, or long shots will pop up to further complicate the picture.
Meanwhile, two Breeders' Cup and Eclipse Award winners -- Royal Delta and Amazombie -- are slated to make their seasonal debuts. Royal Delta, winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic, could earn a trip to the Dubai World Cup with a good showing Saturday at Gulfstream.
But first, the Derby contenders:
The key players in Sunday's $400,000, Grade II Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream are Union Rags, who did everything but win last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile while finishing second to Hansen; Algorithms, who is undefeated in three starts and earned a 101 Beyer Speed Figure in winning the Holy Bull last month; and Discrete Dancer, undefeated in two starts but stepping into the stakes ranks for the first time.
In Saturday's $300,000, Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, El Padrino is the 2-1 morning-line favorite. The Pulpit colt was third in the Grade II Remsen at Aqueduct last fall and opened his 3-year-old season with a victory in a Jan. 29 allowance event at Gulfstream. It will be no walkover for the Todd Pletcher trainee, though. Larry Jones saddles a pair, including Lecomte Stakes winner Mr. Bowling and Mark Valeski.
Sunland Park in New Mexico offers the $150,000 Borderland Derby on Saturday and it wouldn't be unheard of to find something promising in that race. Laurel Park in Maryland has 3-year-olds going 7 furlongs on the main track Saturday in the $75,000 Miracle Wood Stakes.
However, this is still just the midpoint of the "Road to the Roses," with the Florida Derby to follow at Gulfstream and the Louisiana Derby in New Orleans. So any of this weekend's starters could run well and enter the fray.
Yet to come in the next few weeks are the penultimate Derby preps in Arkansas, New York and California.
The 3-year-old fillies aren't forgotten this weekend, either.
At Fair Grounds, Applauding was removed from consideration for Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Rachel Alexandra Stakes but a good field is still set to go. Among the headliners is Believe You Can, winner of the Jan. 21 Silverbulletday Stakes over the same track. The Proud Citizen filly gets New Orleans' leading rider, Rosie Napravnik. Another to keep an eye on is the undefeated Table Three Ten, owned by Team Valor International and trained by Graham Motion -- the Animal Kingdom team. Summer Applause and Inny Minnie, second and third in the Silverbulletday, also are back for more.
Gulfstream's Saturday card is topped by the $150,000, Grade II Davona Dale. Nine are entered, including Grace Hall, returning after a second-place finish to My Miss Aurelia in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies -- her only defeat in four career starts. Todd Pletcher saddles Disposablepleasure, a Giacomo filly who won the Grade II Demoiselle at Aqueduct in November in her last start. Captivating Lass, from the Darley Stable, was ninth in the Demoiselle but bounced back to win the Busanda Stakes at the Big A last month. Salad Girl has won three straight, including the Gasparilla Stakes at Tampa Bay in her last start.
Turfway Park's $50,000 Valdale Stakes on Saturday and Sunland's $50,000 Island Fashion Stakes on Sunday also are open only to 3-year-old fillies.
In addition to the Risen Star and Rachel Alexandra, the post-Mardi Gras venue has on its Saturday schedule the $1250,000 Fair Grounds Handicap at 9 furlongs on the grass, the $125,000, Grade III Mineshaft Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on the main drag and the $75,000 Colonel Power stakes, a 5 1/2-furlong turf dash.
Saturday's program also includes the $100,000, Grade III Sabin Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on the main track, featuring Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic winner and Eclipse Award champion Royal Delta making her 4-year-old debut against four rivals. Trainer Bill Mott said the conditions of the race aren't ideal for Royal Delta. But he indicated he is looking farther down the field.
"I'd like to see a good, solid effort in this race so we can look forward to Dubai," he said.
The field, although short, also includes the aptly named Awesome Maria. The latter ran off four straight wins last year before being sidelined in June with an injury. Also Saturday is the $100,000 The Very One Stakes for distaffers tackling 11 furlongs on the grass. Sunday, the $150,000, Grade II Mac Diarmida Stakes for 4-year-olds and up at 11 furlongs on the turf supports the Fountain of Youth.
The lone graded stake on the weekend card is Saturday's $200,000, Grade II San Carlos Stakes at 7 furlongs on the main track. But that race should be a good one, with Breeders' Cup winner and Eclipse Award champion Amazombie making his 6-year-old debut. Among five opponents is The Factor, who bounced back from a drubbing in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile to win the Grade I Malibu Stakes at 7 furlongs on Dec. 26. Also in the field are Rothko, who was second in the Malibu, and Sway Away, making his first start since last June.
Some of the SAR's top horses are set to go Sunday in the Group 1 Citibank Hong Kong Gold Cup at 2,000 meters over the Sha Tin grass. Top among them is Ambitious Dragon, winner of the first leg of the local Triple Crown. But the competition includes the likes of last year's winner, California Memory, and local stars Irian, Super Pistachio, Thumbs Up and Xtension.
Sunday at Caulfield it's the Patinack Farm Blue Diamond Stakes day, with that race one of three Group 1 events to be run. The Blue Diamond is 1,200 meters, the Sportingbet Oakleigh Plate is 1,100 meters and the Cathay Pacific Futurity Stakes is 1,400 meters. The latter will not include Black Caviar, who is taking the weekend off. Also, it now appears Black Caviar will not be traveling to Dubai for the Golden Shaheen on World Cup night. Instead, she may race once or twice more later in the season down under before heading to Royal Ascot.