It's only the first weekend of January but the Kentucky Derby season already is in full swing.
New York, Louisiana, California and Kentucky all host races Saturday that could point toward the first Saturday of May at Churchill Downs. At the very least, they will give newly turned 3-year-olds a chance to show they belong on the Triple Crown trail.
And, not to forget the fillies, New York has a race for 3-year-old distaffers that also could give some clues about the filly Classics. A similar event at Laurel Park in Maryland failed to fill.
Gulfstream and Santa Anita enliven the mix with races for older horses, too, and turf sprinters are in action on both coasts.
And ... away we go!
Kentucky Derby preps
Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct is an early trial for the final New York Derby prep -- the Wood Memorial. The $100,000, Grade III Sham Stakes shows the way to the Santa Anita Derby and, perhaps, beyond. The $50,000 Turfway Prevue in northern Kentucky previews the Spiral Stakes on the all-weather course. And the $100,000 Big Drama Stakes at Delta Downs in Louisiana finds 3-year-olds going 7 furlongs -- 3 full furlongs short of the distance of the Run for the Roses. But you have to start somewhere, right?
Eight signed on for the 1 mile, 70-yards Jerome Stakes and the morning-line favorite is Vyjack, a Kentucky-bred son of Into Mischief who won both his 2012 starts, including the Traskwood Stakes over the Aqueduct main course last month. Also fancied by the oddsmaker is Long River, a beautifully bred colt by A.P. Indy out of the Awesome Again mare Round Pond. A.P. Indy, Round Pond and Awesome Again all are Breeders' Cup winners. The Darley homebred took three tries to break his maiden for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin but got the job done when he stretched out beyond a mile for the first time. Mudflats, a Tapit gelding, also won for the first time in his third try. Vegas No Show is the most experienced of the top bunch with off-the-board finishes in the Grade II Three Chimneys Stakes and Grade II Remsen. The Hard Spun colt did win the Dover Stakes at Delaware Park and finished second in the Grade II Nashua at the Big A. For those who like trainer Todd Pletcher, no matter what, in juvenile races, his only starter in the Jerome, Notacatbutallama, is 10-1 on the morning line. He has two wins and two seconds in his last four starts -- all stakes. Amerigo Vespucci has two wins and two seconds in nice races at Laurel.
Six are entered for the Sham at 1 mile on the Santa Anita main track but it looks like a two-horse race -- on paper, anyway. Two of the six are trained by Bob Baffert and two by Doug O'Neill. O'Neill's top hope, Goldencents, already would have earned his way into the Kentucky Derby field by virtue of his win in the $1 million, Grade III Delta Downs Jackpot back in November. The Into Mischief colt also finished second in the Grade II Foxwoods Champagne Stakes at Saratoga -- behind Breeders' Cup winner Shanghai Bobby -- but, under the new Derby points system, will have to scramble with everyone else to make the Churchill Downs field despite $722,000 in earnings. O'Neill also has recent maiden winner Greely Awesome. Baffert's pair is led by Den's Legacy, who finished second in one of the Breeders' Cup undercard stakes races, then came back to finish third in the $750,000, Grade I Cash Call Futurity three weeks ago behind highly regarded Violence. Den's Legacy, a Medaglia d'Oro colt, has Garrett Gomez up and starts from the rail. The other Baffert, Manando, is drawn outside. That Bluegrass Cat colt broke his maiden in his fourth try at Hollywood Park last month, beating stablemate Curly Top. Dry Summer won the Oak Tree Juvenile Turf at Del Mar this summer but has struggled on the main track at Santa Anita. Dirty Swag rounds out the field.
Eight 3-year-olds are set to go in Saturday's $50,000 Prevue at Turfway, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. None has particularly distinguished himself yet, although Corso's Law, a Lawyer Ron colt, broke his maiden at Churchill Downs during the fall meeting, then came back to run second on the Turfway all-weather track. He will try the same 6 1/2-furlongs distance Saturday. Bye Bye Bernie, who has raced on the turf in New York and the all-weather at Keeneland, will see what he can do for trainer Kelly Breen and could stay for the rest of the Turfway series with a successful run.
And speaking of Delta Downs, a field of seven is entered for Saturday night's $100,000 Big Drama Stakes going 7 furlongs. The 2-1 morning-line favorite is Heaven's Runway, who won the Fitz Dixon Memorial at Presque Isle Downs in September, but then finished seventh in the Grade III Iroquois at Churchill Downs and in the Delta Jackpot. The Run Away and Hide colt has been working quickly this month over the local strip. Also fancied are King Henry, winner of the Clever Trevor Stakes at Remington and Mr. Bandini's Band, who was competitive in local stakes in the recent past.
Saturday's $100,000 Busanda Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Aqueduct attracted a field of six to go 1 mile and 70 yards. The morning-line favorites are Asiya, Princess of Sylmar and Kiss the Lady. Princess of Sylmar has won two of three while the other two are coming off maiden wins.
Defending champion Heavenly Landing will be back for another try in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Marshua's River on the south Florida turf. Heavenly Landing had only one other win last year, that coming in her most recent start at Keeneland in October. Leading Astray, who has hit the board in five of her eight starts, likely will be making a late run along with Heavenly Landing. Hard Not to Like is making her first start since the Kentucky Oaks, where she finished a troubled sixth.
Breeder's Cup Turf Sprint winner Mizdirection returns for the first time since that triumph in Sunday's $150,000, Grade II Monrovia Stakes for fillies and mares down the hillside turf layout. The 7-year-old Mizzen Mast mare has never finished worse than third in 12 career starts, with seven wins in that span. She won this race last year. Among the five rivals are stakes winners Byrama, Kindle, Givine and Broken Dreams. On form, Mizdirection would be the direction to take.
Saturday's $150,000, Grade II San Pasqual is for 4-year-olds and up going 1 1/16 miles on the main track with a field of nine entered. Here, Baffert and his crew saddle four -- Jaycito, Coil, Hoorayforhollywood and Bank the Eight. Coil was a disappointing seventh in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, then third in the Group 1 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct in November. He won the Grade I Haskell at Monmouth and the Grade I Santa Anita Sprint Championship earlier in 2012 and turned in a sparkling work on Dec. 29 -- 5 furlongs in 58.40, best of 103 that day. Jaycito has been more promise than delivery of late but has some previous success at Santa Anita.
Tampa Bay Downs
And speaking of turf sprints, Great Attack, fifth in the November Breeders' Cup, bounces back in Saturday's $75,000 Turf Dash, facing eight rivals. The 6-year-old son of Greatness is the morning-line favorite. She also won the race last year and finished second in 2011, behind Bridgetown. Silver Cloud, Hello Prince and Hold On Smokey could be in the mix.