Florida and California have some nice turf racing to liven up a schedule that otherwise is relatively light.
The international front also is quiet for a change.
With fewer races to consider, it should be easier to figure them out, so study carefully:
Saturday's $400,000, Grade III Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct features a pair of top prospects for the Run for the Roses -- Vyjack and Overanalyze. The undefeated Vyjack, whose accomplishments include victory over last week's Grade II Fountain of Youth winner, Orb, in his maiden win. Vyjack, a gelded son of Into Mischief, comes off a victory in the Grade II Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct on Jan. 5. In that race, his first try around two turns, he was getting out from the stretch bend through the straight, prompting owner David Wilkenfeld and trainer Rudy Rodriguez to switch riders, from Cornelio Velasquez to Joel Rosario. "He's got a lot of talent," Rodriguez said. "But the competition is going to get tougher, and he's going to have to keep stepping up." Overanalyze won the Grade II Futurity at Belmont Park last fall, then got home third in the Grade III Iroquois at Churchill Downs. After skipping the Breeders' Cup, he won the grade II Remsen at the Big A before retiring for the winter. The Dixie Union colt is trained by Todd Pletcher for Mike Repole. "He's training really good. Todd told me he's ready," said Repole. "He's definitely moved up from 2 to 3 (years old), and we'll find out Saturday where he is. It's been four months and we're excited about getting him here." There are 10 others signed on for the Gotham, contested at 1 1/16 miles and the final local prep for the Grade I Wood Memorial, and some still could jump up and into the Derby picture. Among them are Amerigo Vespucci, the rapidly improving Darley runner Transparent, and Escapefromreality and Siete de Oros, who finished second and third behind Revolutionary in the Grade III Withers. Sky Captain is up from Gulfstream Park for another chance.
Saturday's $75,000 John Battaglia Memorial at 1 1/16 miles on the Turfway Park all-weather track attracted Avare, a Doug O'Neill charge who continues his eastward migration after stops in California and Arkansas. The Johannesburg ridgling won the Eddie Logan Stakes at Santa Anita Dec. 29 but then struggled home seventh in the Smarty Jones at Oaklawn last month. Stormin Monarcho is in from Hawthorne with that track's quarantine now only a bad memory. He was third in the Arlington-Washington Futurity at Arlington last fall. Admiral Kitten is undefeated in two starts at Keeneland and the El Jovan Stakes at Retama. Bye Bye Bernie finished second to Mac the Man in the local 96Rock Stakes last time out and won't have to contend with that rival Saturday. Star Contender was tough in Canada, not so much in Florida.
Thirteen are entered for Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Swale Stakes, 7 furlongs on the Gulfstream Park main track. Under the new system for Kentucky Derby points, it would be risky for a trainer to go here -- with no points on offer -- with a horse already pointing for the Run for the Roses. On the other hand, if one of these should show enough, there would be one more chance, somewhere, to earn a ticket to Louisville. Check back Saturday night and see what they say.
Beholder, last year's Breeders' Cup and Eclipse Award champion 2-year-old filly, will try to get back to her winning ways in Saturday's $250,000, Grade I Las Virgenes Stakes at Santa Anita. The Henny Hughes filly finished second to a longshot rival in the Santa Ynez in her 3-year-old debut going 6 1/2 furlongs and stretches back out to 1 mile for this. Fiftyshadesofhay romped on a wet-fast track in the Grade III Santa Ysabel in her last outing and Bob Baffert moves her right along to this race against tougher competition. Also consider Heir Kitty, runner-up in the Santa Ysabel, the well-rested Speedinthruthecity, the always-close Scarlet Strike and the Santa Ynez upsetter, Rene's Titan.
Seven are entered for Saturday's $100,000 Caesar's Wish at 1 mile at Laurel Park
Ten, including the usual suspects, are set for Saturday's $750,000, Grade I Santa Anita Handicap, a 10-furlong affair on the main track. Game On Dude, riding a two-race win streak since his disappointing performance in the Breeders' Cup Classic, is the highweight. But his rivals include defending "Big Cap" winner Ron the Greek, who took down the Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream in his last outing and who will carry 122 pounds to Game On Dude's 125 -- a situation that "the Dude's" trainer, Bob Baffert, didn't appreciate. "I thought I'd at least get the same weight," he said. "That's a good horse. Every time I run against those good horses, they beat me. My horse is a tough little horse, but Ron the Greek's tough, too." Also in the field are Handsome Mike, who always seems poised for a breakthrough; and the venerable Richard's Kid, who sadly seems to be continuing in the wrong direction. Baffert sends out Guilt Trip to accompany Game On Dude. Guilt Trip won the Grade II Strub Stakes in his last outing and would not be a surprise here.
Fed Biz finished third behind Guilt Trip in the Strub and now Baffert sends him to the grass for Saturday's $300,000, Grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile. Seven rivals in a tough field include Mr. Commons, Forest Mouse, Wilkinson and Suggestive Boy. The latter beat many of these when winning the Grade II Arcadia Stakes over the course and distance in his last outing.
Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Herecomesthebride Stakes, 3-year-old fillies, 9 furlongs on the turf has a field of eight. Highweight is trainer Graham Motion's Tuttipaesi, who comes off a visually impressive win in the Ginger Brew Stakes over the course. Before that, the Irish-bred Clodovil filly raced in Italy and in England. Sweet Shirley Mae is entered only if the race comes off the turf.
Sunday's $150,000, Grade III Palm Beach Stakes finds 3-year-olds tackling the same 9 furlongs on the turf.
Comma to the Top finished third in last weekend's Grade II San Carlos at Santa Anita and resurfaces here for Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Tom Fool Handicap at 6 furlongs. If he runs it would be only his second start outside California -- the other being a 19th-place finish in the 2011 Kentucky Derby. Trainer Peter Miller said he "can't ever remember" running a horse in two graded stakes in a week's time. But, he added, Comma to the Top "is a unique horse. He's not your average horse and there aren't a lot of big races for sprinters." The oddsmaker agreed, installing him as the 3-1 morning-line favorite. Another California invader, Smash, is from Bob Baffert's barn. Head Heart Hoof, the "name of the week," has captured two in a row, including the Grade III Toboggan in his last outing. Off the Jack ships north after proving a tough customer in Florida, including a victory in the Sunshine Millions Sprint. Johannesburg Smile, another Todd Pletcher charge, comes off a second-place finish in the Toboggan. Sheik Mohammed's Consortium has been running well and steps up in class.
Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Top Flight Handicap, fillies and mares, 1 1/16 miles
Sam Houston Race Park
Saturday's program includes four stakes, headed by the $100,000 Maxxam Gold Cup. Eight signed on for that, including Hurricane Ike, Twinspired and Unlatch.