Havre de Grace, the reigning American Horse of the Year, makes her 2012 debut in New Orleans this weekend while the Derby trail winds through Arkansas.
Aqueduct, Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita all have interesting graded stakes. And in Hong Kong, omnipresent trainer John Moore is set to saddle six of the 14 starters in the Mercedes-Benz Hong Kong Derby.
And remember -- it's only two weeks until the Dubai World Cup and seven weeks until the Kentucky Derby. For that matter, it's less than eight months to the Breeders' Cup World Championships at Santa Anita.
But first, this weekend's tempting menu:
Secret Circle is the one to circle in Saturday's $500,000, Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn as trainer Bob Baffert gently stretches out the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint winner.
Secret Circle came back from the Breeders' Cup effort to be outfinished by Out of Bounds in the 1-mile Sham Stakes at Santa Anita but wasn't embarrassed in that effort. Baffert then shipped the Eddington colt to Oaklawn, where he won the Southwest Stakes last month, going 1 mile nicely and getting by pacesetting Scatman late to win by 1/2 length.
The question with Secret Circle will be how far he can go, and no one knows it better than his trainer.
"Eventually we're going to find his limitations," Baffert told Daily Racing Form. "We have to win the Rebel for me to think further distance. So we'll see what he does, take another step forward, distance-wise."
Baffert also returns Castaway, who won the other division of the Southwest.
Scatman is back for more in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel, as is Jake Mo, who finished second in the Southwest. Sabercat has won three straight -- but the last was in November in the $1 million, Grade III Delta Jackpot. He has enough graded earnings to make the Kentucky Derby no matter what, but Saturday's race should indicate whether the Bluegrass Cat colt belongs there.
Among those to watch: Atigun, who was fifth in the Kentucky Jockey Club last fall, and then returned with an allowance win in Hot Springs in January and has posted nice recent works; Najjaar, a Jazil colt who has won two straight and will tote Calvin Borel; and Pee H Dee, who has a neat name and is owned by James "Mattress Mack" McIngvale, whose Gallery Furniture.com had a one-year run as the sponsor of a top Kentucky Derby prep at Turfway Park.
At Laurel Park in Maryland, nine are entered for the 1-mile, $75,000 Private Terms Stakes with Todd Pletcher's Raconteur among the favorites in a well-balanced but still mostly aspiring field. Raconteur won an optional claimer at Aqueduct, and then suffered from a troubled trip in the Grade III Gotham.
"He's very consistent and genuine," Pletcher said. "Always tries hard."
Dangerous Lad, a son of Bob and John, invades from New York. He is 2-for-3, featuring wins in a maiden event at Woodbine and an optional claimer in January. Watch this race more for pointers toward potential "new shooters" for the Preakness than for Derby contenders.
Fillies and mares:
With Zenyatta's first baby on the ground and reportedly doing well (all you'd ever want to know -- and more, watch and listen to the Zenyatta song! -- is at www.zenyatta.com), it's time to shift our attention to the ladies still battling it out on the track. At the top of the list is Havre de Grace, who took Horse of the Year honors for 2011 on the strength of a consistent and versatile campaign against top competition.
The competition in her first start of 2012 won't be so tough. In fact, Havre de Grace appears to have scared a lot of owners and trainers away from Saturday's $150,000 New Orleans Ladies -- a race dreamed up two years ago to lure then-Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra. The race is not graded, making it doubly unattractive for others.
In fact, only five were entered Wednesday. There's nothing wrong with the other four but none of them is likely to be mistaken for the Horse of the Year.
Sterling Madame has won two straight at Fair Grounds and three of six overall but will make her first stakes appearance. Juanita finished third in last month's $75,000 Tiffany Lass Stakes and second in January's $75,000 Marie G. Krantz Memorial. Distorted Love finished fourth in the Tiffany Lass. And Annabel Lee ships in from Florida for the second time this winter after finishing second in the $75,000 Pago Hop on the grass.
Havre de Gras, meantime, has been working like a tremendous machine in preparation for her 5-year-old debut, culminating in a 5-furlong breeze Monday clocked at 59 3/5 seconds.
"Mentally, she's right where we want her," said trainer Larry Jones. "She's controllable and we know she's fast. She's ready to go."
And, speaking of going, some of the other top fillies and mares are going elsewhere this weekend rather than face Havre de Grace.
It's only a comfortable van ride north from New Orleans to Saturday's Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn Park -- another 1 1/16-mile, main-track affair. While it carries the same $150,000 purse as the Fair Ground race, the Azeri has Grade III status -- and no Havre de Grace.
Among the notable in the Azeri, Absinthe Minded, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, has won both her starts this year, both of them at Oaklawn and both stakes. She was third in last year's Azeri when this race attracted the monsters as Havre de Grace and Blind Luck finished 1-2. Joyful Victory and Ravi's Song evacuated from New Orleans in favor of this race after finishing first and second in the Tiffany Lass Stakes in the Big Easy. Tiz Miz Sue and She's All In, who chased Absinthe Minded in the earlier local races, complete the field. Larry Jones trains Joyful Victory, giving him a good chance for a double header win.
Saturday's $300,000, Grade I Santa Margarita Stakes at Santa Anita is contested at 9 furlongs on the main track. Bob Baffert has two of the six entrants, including Ellafitz, who has reeled off consecutive wins in the Bayakoa, Paseana and Santa Maria. Her stablemate, Awesomemundo, is stepping up in class after a 7 1/2-lengths win in an optional claimer Feb. 19. Miss Mittagong was second in the Santa Maria and third in the Robert Frankel. Include Me Out upset the Grade II La Canada in her last start. Ellafitz looks tough, though.
"She's in a zone right now," Baffert admitted. "Last time (in the Santa Maria), they took all kinds of shots at her. She took a lot of heat and kept going. They sent a rabbit out there, but my mare is doing better for this race than she was before the last race."
At Gulfstream Park, the ladies will run 7 furlongs Saturday's $150,000, Grade II Inside Information Stakes. The morning-line favorite despite the outside, No. 11 post position, is Her Smile, third in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint and third in her seasonal debut in the Hurricane Bertie. Breeders' Cup winner Musical Romance also is in the field, looking to bounce back from a fourth-place finish in the Sunshine Millions. Also worth a look are R Holiday Mood and Funny Sunny, the first two home in the Hurricane Bertie, and Groupie Doll, who catches an easier task after finishing third to Awesome Maria and Royal Delta in the Sabin Handicap last time out.
And Sunday, the fillies and mares tackle the grass at Gulfstream in the $150,000, Grade II Honey Fox Stakes going 1 mile. A contentious field of 13 is entered including Romacaca, who was second in the Sunshine Millions last time but won five in a row last year during a very hot streak. Lacie Slew won the Maryland Racing Media Stakes in her last outing. This should be a great wagering race.
-- A couple favorites drew outside for Sunday's 2,000-meters HK-Group 1 Mercedes-Benz Hong Kong Derby. Sweet Orange and Fay Fay, first and second in the HK-Group 1 Mercedes-Benz HK Classic Mile, got posts 10 and 14, respectively. Meanwhile, Zaidan, winner of the HK-Group 1 Mercedes-Benz HK Classic Cup, finds himself in a comfortable location in gate No. 6.
"Fay Fay has got a bit of work to do and needs a lot of luck to overcome that draw," said trainer John Size.
Trainer David Ferraris was shaking his head about the draw for his two starters.
"Liberator (post No. 5) has the inside draw and Sweet Orange has the wide draw," he noted. "I'd have probably wanted it the other way around."
John Moore, who has six entered, including Zaidan, said he was generally happy. Still, he said, in a big field, "the horse that wins will be the one that has the luck in running."
-- Aqueduct has the $150,000, Grade III Excelsior Stakes at 9 furlongs Saturday. An intriguing field of six signed on, including last year's Hawthorne Gold Cup winner, Redding Colliery. Birdrun returns for the first time since finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Marathon. San Pablo, Marilyn's Guy, Norman Asbjornson and Inherit the Gold all have been dynamite at Aqueduct this winter.
-- Santa Anita's Saturday card backs up the Santa Margarita with the aptly named Irish O'Brien Stakes for state-bred distaffers running down the hillside turf course -- likely toward Horse Racing Radio Network commentator Jude Feld's outstanding corned beef and cabbage. Sunday's scheduled $150,000, Grade II San Luis Rey at 1 1/2 miles on the grass has been postponed a week because of expected rain.
-- Sunland Park on Sunday features the $110,000 New Mexico State University Stakes for state-breds.