Top-level sprinters are on display at Aqueduct, Santa Anita and Woodbine. Keeneland and Woodbine both swing back into action, giving official sanction to the arrival of spring.
Here are some harbingers:
After Saturday's races, there are only a handful of Kentucky Derby preps left on the calendar. And, with the field for the Run for the Roses still very much in flux after last weekend's upsets, the $1 million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby in California and the $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne Race Course take on even more significance.
Eight signed on for the Wood, a 9-furlong, Grade I test over the Big A's main track. The big two in the field are the undefeated Gemologist and Sheik Mohammed's top remaining Derby contender, Alpha.
Gemologist, a Tiznow colt out of the Mr. Prospector mare Crystal Shard, reeled off three wins from as many starts last year for trainer Todd Pletcher, culminating in a 1 3/4-lengths win in the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs. He started this year with a victory in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park.
But Gemologist has only the $103,855 winner's share from the KJC to put toward the graded stakes earnings mark that determines who starts in the Derby. He will need to hit the board Saturday to be sure of getting into the Churchill Downs starting gate on May 5.
Alpha finished second in the Champagne last year at Belmont Park before an 11th-place showing in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. But his victory in the Withers in his last start puts him close to where he needs to be in earnings. It's a different question whether he can step up as the competition gets more serious.
Alpha represents Sheik Mohammed's Godolphin Racing operation and the decision to let him winter in the United States represents a reversal of the previous Godolphin pattern of taking good 2-year-olds back to Dubai for their Derby preps. That didn't work out so well as five Godolphin horses entered in the Kentucky Derby between 1999 and 2002 could muster no finish better than seventh.
Should Gemologist and Alpha prove wanting, several of the other six in the field easily could step up to further muddy the Derby picture. Among them is Casual Trick, saddled by two-time Derby-winning trainer Nick Zito. Casual Trick finished seventh in the Fountain of Youth but Zito said his breathing was compromised in that race -- a condition that since has been remedied.
The Santa Anita Derby drew a field of 10, with two of the favorites stuck in the inside post positions.
Creative Cause, never worse than third in seven lifetime starts, was drawn No. 1 for the 9-furlong race. He was third behind Hansen and Union Rags in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, then third in the San Vicente in February before winning the San Felipe last month.
Right to his outside is Liaison, who has something to prove. With plenty of earnings after winning the Cash Call Futurity last fall at Del Mar, the Indian Charlie colt finished eighth in the Robert Lewis and then fourth in the San Felipe in his only two starts this year for trainer Bob Baffert. Baffert also saddles Blueskiesnrainbows, an English Channel colt who is making a big jump in class, and Paynter, who won his only previous career start six weeks ago. I'll Have Another is another to watch off his victory in the Robert Lewis. That outing on Feb. 4 is his only start since finishing sixth in the Three Chimneys Hopeful at Saratoga last September. Midnight Transfer finished third in the San Felipe after winning the San Pedro in January.
The Illinois Derby drew a full 14 entrants with another three on the also-eligible list. The 4-1 morning-line favorite is Curency Swap, who won the Hopeful at Saratoga, then returned in an allowance at Gulfstream Park on March 16, finishing second.
Several of the others in the Hawthorne starting gate have shown flashes of ability and the winner will earn enough in the Grade III event to secure a Kentucky Derby starting spot.
Also on the Aqueduct card for 3-year-olds is the 7-furlong Bay Shore Stakes, a $250,000, Grade III event at 7 furlongs. Headlining that event is Trinniberg, who was second to Currency Swap in the Hopeful last summer but since has been pointed toward one-turn races. In his last effort, the Teuflesberg colt was a dominating winner in the 7-furlong Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Also look for Hardend Wildcat, a Hard Spun colt who has won three straight races at the Big A.
If you can't be at the races, Horse Racing Radio will broadcast live from Santa Anita Park Saturday, with coverage of the Santa Anita Derby. The two-hour broadcast, starting at 4 p.m. EDT also includes coverage of the Wood Memorial and Keeneland's Ashland Stakes for Kentucky Oaks hopefuls.
Speaking of the 3-year-old fillies:
Kentucky Oaks preps
It's always nice to have Keeneland back on the schedule and Saturday's $500,000, Grade I Central Bank Ashland Stakes provides some wagering interest to boot. With seven signed on for the 1 1/16-mile event on the all-weather surface, Stephanie's Kitten is the morning-line favorite on the strength of her win over the same surface last fall in the Grade I Darley Alcibiades Stakes. She detoured successfully to the grass in the Breeders' Cup, winning the Juvenile Fillies Turf and indicating trainer Wayne Catalano is ducking dirt surfaces for the Kitten's Joy filly. She has not run since the Breeders' Cup and the field is well balanced, with no other filly posted as high as double-digit odds so get out the Ouija board (the predicting device, not the former champion mare).
Broadway's Alibi is the even-money favorite for Saturday's $250,000, Grade III Comely Stakes at 1 mile on the Aqueduct main track. The Vindication filly has won three straight for trainer Todd Pletcher, including the Grade II Forward Gal at Gulfstream Park in her last outing -- by 16 3/4 lengths over some fillies who aren't that bad. Millionreasonswhy captured the Grade II Matron at Belmont and finished second by a neck to My Miss Aurelia in the Grade II Adirondack at Saratoga last summer, then easily won the Wide Country Stakes at Laurel Park in her seasonal debut. Could be -- should be -- a good race.
Seven were entered for Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Providencia Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the Santa Anita turf course. Lady of Shamrock ran credibly behind the divisional stars in January's Grade III Santa Ysabel Stakes on the main track but then stepped up to win the China Doll on the turf in her last start. Island Paradise was third in the Miesque in her only U.S. start last year after racing in England. Killer Graces won the Hollywood Starlet last year and was second in the Santa Ysabel. But she then faded badly to finish seventh in the Grade I Las Virgenes last month and switches to the green surface. Indigo River was third in the China Doll and the others appear aspirational.
And then we'll watch the sprinters:
Saturday's $400,000, Grade I Carter Handicap drew a field of six, including a Godolphin entry. While small, the field is mighty. The "boys in blue" duo of Emcee and Tahitian Warrior are the morning-line favorite. Emcee won his first two starts and then finished third as the favorite in the Grade III Tom Fool last month, answering the class question. Unfortunately, he finished behind Calibrachoa and Caleb's Posse, both of whom are in the field again Saturday. Calibrachoa is a hard-knocking veteran who's hard to beat at the Big A. And Caleb's Posse, of course, won the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile last fall. Sound like an intriguing race? Wait. There's more -- Jackson Bend and Shackleford are both in here, too. The former was third in the Breeders' Cup Sprint last fall, then won the Hal's Hope and finished third behind Mucho Macho Man in the Gulfstream Park Handicap earlier this year. And Shackleford gets little respect despite a resume that includes second place in last year's Florida Derby, fourth in the Kentucky Derby, a win in the Preakness, fifth in the Belmont, second in the Haskell and second in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. He faded to finish seventh in the Donn Handicap after prompting the pace and trainer Dale Romans will be hoping the Carter's 7 furlongs will prove a comfort zone for the Forestry colt.
The suburban Toronto track is back, too, and the $150,000 (Canadian) Jacques Cartier Stakes for sprinters on the all-weather track headlines its Saturday card. Paso Doble, Madman Diaries and Essence Hit Man are the oddsmakers' best fancies in this. Paso Doble, a 6-year-old gelding, is making his seasonal debut and needed one in a similar situation last year. Madman Diaries had a very promising 2-year-old season but disappointed last year. He wintered in Florida and finished second in an optional claimer at Gulfstream last time out. Essence Hit Man went on vacation after winning the Grade III Kennedy Road Stakes at Woodbine last October and is the defending champion in this event.
Sprinters will stretch their legs in Saturday's $150,000, Grade II Potero Grande Handicap with last year's Breeders' Cup Sprint winner, Amazombie, looking to bounce back from a third-place showing in his seasonal debut, the Grade II San Carlos on Feb. 25. The 6-year-old Northern Afleet gelding has posted 14 straight on-the-board finishes, the last six of them in graded stakes. In the San Carlos, he finished behind The Factor, who is still reeling from an unsuccessful trip to Dubai, and Sway Away, a promising 4-year-old who is back for more. Mensa Heat, a reformed claimer, bears watching if he has a good day. And without meaning to be sacrilegious in the Passover/Easter weekend, you could have an exacta box with Roman Threat and Thunder of Zion. The former is a Bob Baffert-trained Roman Ruler gelding who won his only career start a month ago and will try to climb a class mountain. Thunder of Zion would be a stab, too, as he has been running unsuccessfully in the claiming ranks.
Sunday is the $1.1 million, Jpn-Group 1 Oka Sho, or Japanese One Thousand Guineas at Hansin Racecourse. The full field of 18 has many possibilities, including last year's Hanshin Juvenile Fillies winner Joie de Vivre.
Saturday's Golden Slipper at Rosehill Gardens in Australia, billed as the world's richest juvenile race, features the unbeaten Samaready, fresh off victory in the Blue Diamond Stakes a month ago.