The scramble to get into the Run for the Roses is so intense this year that the final positions in the Churchill Downs starting gate probably won't be allocated until after next week's Lexington Stakes at Keeneland and Jerome at Aqueduct.
But the $1 million, Grade I events on Saturday's schedule include some of the current favorites and -- if they run to form -- should say a lot about what to expect on May 5 under the twin spires.
And there's a lot more weekend action than just the Derby preps, including yet another $1 million race in Saturday's Grade II Charles Town Classic at the little West Virginia track that within recent memory was running for four-figure purses.
The Racing Festival of the South is well under way at Oaklawn with Friday's $500,000, Grade I Apple Blossom a key stop for fillies and mares -- especially since reigning Horse of the Year Havre de Gras is taking a pass.
Aqueduct and Keeneland also have important graded stakes. Calder is back in action with the $150,000 Calder Derby on the turf Saturday. And the 2-year-olds are off and running with those famous Keeneland dashes and a pair of stakes at Sunland Park for New Mexico-bred juveniles.
A little detail about a lot of races:
The Derby preps
ARKANSAS DERBY: Trainer Bob Baffert won both divisions of the Southwest Stakes, the final local prep for this race. Now he has the two favorites for the big race itself and only one of them, Secret Circle, was a Southwest victor. The other, Bodemeister, actually is the morning-line favorite for the 9-furlong Arkansas Derby, even though he drew the outside post position in a field of 11. Bodemeister, named for Baffert's son, will be running for just the fourth time and comes off a second-place finish to Creative Cause in the Grade II San Felipe a month ago at Santa Anita.
Secret Circle, meanwhile, won both the tougher division of the Southwest and the earlier Oaklawn 3-year-old fixture, the Rebel. "This'll be a good race with some nice horses in there," Baffert said after the draw. "I think Bodemiester will be tough. These are two really good horses and even though I don't like to get ahead of myself, it's always special just to have a horse that has a chance in the Kentucky Derby. So hopefully we wind up with one of those on Saturday."
Baffert's horses won't have any walkover. In from the east coast are a pair trained by Todd Pletcher, Stat and Raconteur, and a Dale Romans trainee, Cozzetti. Optimizer, who was making progress at the end of the Rebel, heads the local contingent for four-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
"I think we sorted out a lot across the country last weekend," Lukas said of the long "Road to the Roses. "We are set to clarify it even more Saturday. I think we are ready. For everybody, now it's a matter of keeping it all together over the next few weeks."
TOYOTA BLUE GRASS: Breeders' Cup winner and Eclipse Award champion Hansen is the 6-5 favorite in this 9-furlong test over Keeneland's all-weather Polytrack -- a surface he is known to like after two victories at Turfway Park last year.
Hansen will have a dozen rivals for the Blue Grass but oddsmaker Mike Battaglia didn't seem to fancy any of them too much. Co-second picks in the early odds at 6-1 are Howe Great and Dullahan, who finished 1-2 in the Grade III Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream Park over the turf course. From there, it's 10-1 on Prospective as the morning-line fourth choice.
Hansen, a nearly white colt, won all three starts as a juvenile, capping the season by beating Union Rags in a thrilling stretch run in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs. After finishing second in the slop at Gulfstream Park in the Holy Bull, he rebounded to win the Gotham at Aqueduct, rating behind the early speed for the first time.
Also of note in the field is Hero of Order, who won the Louisiana Derby at odds of 109-1. The ever-present Baffert will be represented by Midnight Crooner, who was third in the Pasadena Stakes on the Santa Anita turf in his only previous stakes try. He is, however, a full brother to 2011 Santa Anita Derby winner Midnight Interlude. As always, there are several others who could step up and insert themselves into the Derby picture.
Hansen will break from gate No. 4 with Ramon Dominguez up and trainer Mike Maker said that post position is "better than the 1 or 13. I'll leave it in Ramon's hands (to decide how work out a winning trip). That's what we're paying him for." Asked about the spacing of three weeks between the Blue Grass and the Derby, with the rigors of the Preakness and Belmont to follow, Maker said, "It might be a lot to ask if we're fortunate to get that far. But I'm just thinking of the Derby at this point."
Elsewhere around the racing circuits
Saturday's $1 million, Grade II Charles Town Classic drew a diverse and talented field of 10, with three also-eligibles. The morning-line favorite is Tackleberry, coming off a second-place effort behind Mucho Macho Man in the Grade II Gulfstream Park Handicap. He finished fourth in this race last year. Other recognizable names in this year's edition include Pants On Fire, Uh Oh Bango, Caixa Eletronica and Tres Borrachos. Supporting the main event are the $250,000 Robert Hilton Memorial for 3-year-olds at 7 furlongs and the $200,000 Sugar Maple Stakes for fillies and mares at the same distance.
Keeneland has top-notch graded stakes all weekend. Friday's offering is the $300,000, Grade I Maker's 46 Mile on the grass with Breeders' Cup Mile runner-up Turalure as the early favorite. Saturday's Blue Grass undercard has the $300,000, Grade I Jenny Wiley for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on the lawn with Zagora and Aruna squaring off; the $175,000, Commonwealth Stakes at 7 furlongs; and the $100,000, Grade III Shakertown at 5 1/2 furlongs on the grass with a well-balanced field of 10. Sunday, 3-year-old fillies go 7 furlongs on the main track in the $150,000, Grade II Beaumont Stakes.
Oaklawn Park on Friday has the Apple Blossom and, while trainer Larry Jones withdrew Havre de Gras because he wasn't happy with the weights, the remaining field of five is a tough one. Plum Pretty is the morning-line choice at 4-5, followed by Tiz Miz Sue, Absinthe Minded, Twelve Twenty Two and Holy Heavens. Plum Pretty, another Baffert charge, won last year's Kentucky Oaks and is making her first start since finishing a disappointing fifth in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic last fall. Saturday's Derby undercard includes the $400,000, Grade II Oaklawn Handicap with a field of eight including Ron the Greek, Hymn Book, Alternation and Nehro. The $250,000, Grade III Count Fleet Sprint Handicap attracted a field of six with reformed claimer Izzy Rules putting a four-race win streak on the line as the early favorite. Apriority and Hamazing Destiny will apply the class test for Izzy Rules.
Aqueduct's weekend feature is Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Distaff Handicap at 7 furlongs on the main track. It's Tricky drew outside in the field of seven and was posted as the 6-5 favorite. She was second in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic last fall and opened her 2012 campaign with a win in the Top Flight Handicap last month.
Santa Anita sends fillies and mares down the hillside turf course in Sunday's $100,000, Grade III Las Cienegas Handicap.
Woodbine on Saturday runs the $150,000 Star Shoot Stakes for 3-year-old fillies and Sunday, the $150,000 Woodstock for any 3-year-old. Both purses are in Canadian funds and both races are at 6 furlongs on the all-weather track.
In New Mexico, state-bred juveniles get an early test in Sunday twin $75,000 Copper Top Futurity heats, one for colts and geldings, the other restricted to fillies.
Saturday is the Aus-Group 1 Australian Derby at Randwick but that event is overshadowed by the Aus-Group2 ATC Sires Produce Stakes. In that juveniles event, two unbeaten budding stars are set to face off. One, All Too Hard, is stepping up to the group level for the first time but, in addition to his previous dominance in lesser races, is the half brother of Black Caviar. The other, Pierro, is the first horse since 1977 to win both the Breeders' Stakes and the Silver Slipper, the latter just last weekend.
Sunday at Nakayama finds the Jpn-Group 1 Satsuki Sho or Japanese Two Thousand Guineas, the first leg of the Japanese Triple Crown. This race was moved to Tokyo last year in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated part of Japan. Eighteen 3-year-old colts are set to go with many having credentials.
The Group 1 Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup in Hong Kong on April 29 is shaping up as a true international test including runners who have competed from Chicago to Dubai and South Africa. The prospective field for the 2,000-meter event at Sha Tin also includes two of the SAR's most accomplished runners in reigning Horse of the Year Ambitious Dragon and 2012 Mercedes-Benz Hong Kong Derby winner Fay Fay. Aidan O'Brien sends Treasure Beach, winner of the Irish Derby and the Secretariat Stakes last year. Rulership is expected from Japan and Viscount Nelson is slated to represent South Africa. Chinchon returns to carry the French banner. "I am pleased with the caliber of horses we have among the selected runners," said Hong Kong Jockey Club's executive director of racing, William A Nader. "To have our established champion, Ambitious Dragon, going up against Fay Fay and his fellow rising stars of the Hong Kong scene is an intriguing prospect in itself. To also have international Group 1 performers like Treasure Beach, Rulership and Chinchon in the mix is particularly satisfying from the standpoint of this being a renowned global event."