Friday's Kentucky Oaks card at Churchill Downs gets the weekend going with the $1 million, Grade I Oaks only one of six stakes, five of them graded.
On Saturday, the $2 million, Grade I Kentucky Derby is the top of a six-stakes card with all six graded events. Among the Derby undercard races are the $500,000, Grade I Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at 9 furlongs on the grass, the $300,000, Grade I Humana Distaff for fillies and mares at 7 furlongs on the main track and the $400,000 Churchill Downs Handicap at 7 furlongs, also on the main course.
Hollywood Park has three stakes on Saturday, two of them graded affairs. Belmont Park hosts a pair of graded stakes at 1 1/16 mile on the turf, one open and one for fillies and mares.
And there is a whirlwind of top action overseas.
Saturday at Newmarket in England it's the Group 1 Two Thousand Guineas at 1 mile on the turf, starting to put some order to the British, Irish and European 3-year-olds. That's followed on Sunday by the Group 1 One Thousand Guineas, ditto for 3-year-old fillies.
Sunday's Group 1 BMW Champions Mile at Sha Tin in Hong Kong promises to be a bang-up affair with a strong local contingent, headed by Ambitious Dragon, trying to fend off some powerful invaders, including recent Dubai winners Cityscape and African Story. A dynamite race in all respects.
Another 1-mile race for 3-year-olds -- the NHK Mile Cup -- goes Sunday at Tokyo Race Course.
The feature of the week remains the Kentucky Derby, which this year drew a deep and talented field. That means it's a tough one to figure out. Here are some hints, with the horses listed by post position with jockey and morning-line odds:
1. DADDY LONG LEGS (Colm O'Donoghue, 30-1). The dreaded rail position, where many a contender has been eliminated at the start. But if O'Donoghue can get out of the gate without getting slammed or squeezed, this Scat Daddy colt showed in winning the UAE Derby that he can carry his speed over a distance of ground. The start will be critical. Also, it's worth noting he finished next-last of 13 in his only previous U.S. start for trainer Aidan O'Brien -- the Breeders Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs last fall. He won the Royal Lodge stakes at Newmarket last year in just his third career start. Lots to prove but lots of quality, too.
2. OPTIMIZER (Jon Court, 50-1). An English Channel colt, trained by D. Wayne Lukas. This guy has but a maiden win to his credit. He did jump up to finish second in the Rebel at Oaklawn Park at 28-1 odds. But then he backslid to finish ninth, 20 lengths back of Bodemeister, in the Arkansas Derby. Lukas knows his business but this looks like too much of a challenge.
3. TAKE CHARGE INDY (Calvin Borel, 15-1). The Florida Derby winner, with Derby-savvy Borel up, at 15-1. Tempting, yes. But remember that he scored that Florida Derby win by jumping to the lead and slowing things down. He's unlikely to either get the lead or slow the pace in a Kentucky Derby field loaded with speed, mostly to his outside. Trained by Patrick Byrne, this guy finished a fading fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile after some traffic issues. Maybe that 15-1 isn't so tempting, after all.
4. UNION RAGS. (Julien Leparoux, 9-2). Not a bad starting spot for a colt that keeps promising a breakout race but has yet to deliver it. A Dixie Union colt, trained by Michael Matz, he finished second to Hansen over the Churchill Downs strip in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in his final race as a 2-year-old. But then he easily won the Fountain of Youth in his 2012 start. He finished third in the Florida Derby, getting going too late behind the slow pace with too much left to do. His best trip would be to sit off the speed, then get going at the top of the lane and hold off the late closers at the wire. That would be the breakout race, just at the right time.
5. DULLAHAN. (Kent Desormeaux, 8-1). An Even the Score colt, trained by Dale Romans. This one is a half brother to Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird -- who never did anything after posting his huge Derby upset. Dullahan isn't as big a longshot as Mine That Bird but he has some issues. His best races have been on the grass and all-weather surfaces, including his last-out victory in the Blue Grass over Keeneland's all-weather track. He has never finished better than a well-beaten third at Churchill Downs. In his only two wins, he has come from far back in the field. The morning-line odds indicate he may be overbet.
6. BODEMEISTER. (Mike Smith, 4-1). For a change, trainer Bob Baffert gets a reasonable starting slot for his star player. This Empire Maker colt romped to a 9 1/2-lengths win in the Arkansas Derby. In four starts, he has won twice -- both times when he was on the lead at the first call. The lead will be a hotly disputed position in the Kentucky Derby and if Smith can get him to relax, perhaps behind Trinniberg, he might justify his favorite's role. He is named for Baffert's young son, Bodie, who is frequently seen on TV visiting the winner's circle with his dad. On the down side, he finished second to Creative Cause in the San Felipe out west and he did not race as a 2-year-old. It's been 130 years since the Kentucky Derby winner didn't race as a juvenile.
7. ROUSING SERMON. (Jose Lezcano, 50-1). A Lucky Pulpit colt, trained by Jerry Hollendorfer. This colt has only two wins from nine starts and both of those victories were against fellow California-breds. He was pretty soundly defeated in the Robert Lewis and San Felipe, then kicked in late in the Louisiana Derby to complete the trifecta. He tends to let others show the early speed, which could be a good thing in this Derby. Even if his Louisiana Derby effort was a step forward, it will take another, bigger, one to win this.
8. CREATIVE CAUSE. (Joel Rosario, 12-1). A Giant's Causeway colt, trained by Mike Harrington. He's never been worse than third in eight career starts and completed the trifecta in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He also beat Bodemeister on the square in the San Felipe on March 10 before getting home second by a nose to I'll Have Another in the Santa Anita Derby. He typically runs from behind the pace. California horses sometimes are suspect when they arrive at Churchill Downs but the Breeders' Cup performance showed he can handle that surface. The price certainly is right for believers.
9. TRINNIBERG. (Willie Martinez, 50-1). A Teuflesberg colt, trained by Bisnath Parboo. Here's one to add to the speed contingent. He has been on the lead at the first call in six of his seven career starts and won three of those, including the Grade III Swale at Gulfstream and the Grade III Bay Shore at Aqueduct. Both of those graded stakes wins were at 7 furlongs. Can he do battle with the likes of Bodemeister through the early furlongs and still have anything left in the long Churchill Downs stretch? Or will he simply compromise the other speed horses, like Bodemeister? With a clean break from the middle of the field, he will have every chance.
10. DADDY NOSE BEST. (Garrett Gomez, 15-1). Another Scat Daddy colt, trained by Steve Asmussen. He was toiling on the turf until Asmussen put him in the El Camino Real Derby over the Golden Gate all-weather track. He responded with a late-running win from mid-pack, then backed that up with a similar victory in the Sunland Park Derby, over a real dirt track. He was sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf last fall and has four wins from 10 starts overall. He goes on a list with many others who could step up and win with a career-best effort.
11. ALPHA. (Rajiv Maragh, 15-1). A Bernardini colt, trained by Kiaran McLaughlin for Godolphin. He finished 11th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, then came back this year to win the Count Fleet and the Withers. He then finished second, a neck short of Gemologist, in the Wood after getting roughed up on the first turn. Lacerations from that mixup became infected and his workout and shipping schedule was compromised. Here is yet another who seems to run best from just off the pace. But he will need another gear in the stretch to finally land the Derby for Sheik Mohammed.
12. PROSPECTIVE. (Luis Contreras, 30-1). A Malibu Moon colt trained by Mark Casse, he is the only horse that Daddy Long Legs beat in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. But he came back to win the Pasco Stakes and the Tampa Bay Derby on Florida's Gulf Coast this spring before tossing in a clunker in the Blue Grass over Keeneland's all-weather track. He would be coming from well back in the final furlong if he has what it takes.
13. WENT THE DAY WELL. (John Velazquez, 20-1). Normally, you'd toss out of Kentucky Derby consideration a horse whose only added-money win was in the Spiral Stakes over the Turfway Park all-weather surface. But that was before trainer H. Graham Motion and Animal Kingdom used that route to win last year's Run for the Roses. Both Animal Kingdom and Went the Day Well, a Proud Citizen colt, are campaigned by Motion and owned by Team Valor International. Can lightning strike twice?
14. HANSEN. (Ramon Dominguez, 10-1). This striking, almost-white colt by Tapit, trained by Mike Maker, won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs, holding off the heavy favorite, Union Rags, through the final furlong. He has two wins and two seconds this year, including a runner-up showing to Dullahan in the Blue Grass. In most of his races, he has sped to the lead. But he showed in winning the Gotham Stakes that he also can wait behind the pace -- which he might need to do in the Derby. He could be an underlay if he can run back to that gritty effort in the Juvenile.
15, GEMOLOGIST. (Javier Castellano, 6-1). A Tiznow colt, trained by Todd Pletcher, he is undefeated in five starts, including the Kentucky Jockey Club over the Churchill Downs track last November. Not all horses like that track, so the win is reassuring to his supporters. He comes into the race off a victory in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, where he held off Alpha to win by a neck. He's another who likes to be on or near the lead and his perfect record will attract support. The question is whether he has really beaten anything in his prep races. One answer: He's beaten everything they've run against him.
16. EL PADRINO. (Rafael Bejarano, 20-1). A Pulpit colt, trained by Pletcher, his claim to fame is victory in the Risen Star in New Orleans. But then he finished fourth in the Florida Derby without much late punch. One thing to watch: He broke his maiden with a 12 3/4-lengths win at Belmont Park in the slop and also won on an off track at Gulfstream Park. The weather forecast for the next few days is uncertain. So if the ladies' hats are soggy and the mint juleps are diluted with rainwater on Derby Day, take a second look at El Padrino.
17. DONE TALKING. (Sheldon Russell, 50-1). A Broken Vow colt, trained by Hamilton Smith. He finished a close fourth in the Remsen at Aqueduct to wrap up his 2-year-old season and was the only one gaining at the end. He ran poorly in the Gotham without any excuse, then jumped up to win the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne -- a race in which everyone else practically stopped in the stretch run. His game is to put in one, big, late run and if he continues to progress, he should be among the late closers at Churchill Downs. Still, he would need to find another setting on the accelerator to be there at the end.
18, SABERCAT. (Corey Nakatani, 30-1). A Bluegrass Cat colt, trained by Asmussen. He won the Garden State at Monmouth and the Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs to close out 2011, then finished a disappointing eighth in the Rebel at Oaklawn in his comeback. He did finish third in the Arkansas Derby but he was nearly 10 lengths behind Bodemeister at the end. He started slowly in both races this year after being in the mix early in two of his three wins.
19. I'LL HAVE ANOTHER. (Luis Gutierrez, 12-1). A Flower Alley colt, trained by Doug O'Neill. He has run very well in California, winning the Robert Lewis and the Santa Anita Derby -- beating Creative Cause in the latter -- in his only starts so far this year. But he went to the sidelines in September last year after a dismal showing in the slop at Saratoga in the Hopeful. If you like Creative Cause, this one would be hard not to like. His last two races were won from just off the pace.
20. LIAISON. (Martin Garcia, 50-1). An Indian Charlie colt, trained by Baffert, he looked like Baffert's best hope when he won the Real Quiet Stakes and the Cash Call Futurity last year at Hollywood Park. But then he clipped heels and lost jockey Rafael Bejarano in the Robert Lewis in his first start as a 3-year-old and hasn't been the same since, showing little in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby.
Good luck. Even if the favorites run to their notices, the payoffs should be generous.
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