Even though the stakes schedule doesn't get much thinner than this weekend's, there's still plenty going on.
Keeping track of the potential Kentucky Derby candidates? You're covered with Saturday's Sham Stakes at Santa Anita. A fan of the Oaks crowd? Check out the Dixie Belle at Oaklawn Friday and the Ruthless at Aqueduct Saturday.
Turf enthusiasts can concentrate on the Fort Lauderdale on Saturday's card at Gulfstream Park. Gulfstream, Oaklawn and Santa Anita all have Saturday races for the older crowd.
Look at it this way: With fewer races, you can pay more attention to each event, improve your handicapping and get a good financial head start on the year.
Let's get that ball rolling.
Half of the six starters for Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Sham Stakes at Santa Anita are recent maiden winners. And none of the other three has particularly distinguished himself running against winners. So this 1-mile test is one to watch for a potential breakout performance. Kristo, a Distorted Humor colt, finally got to the winner's circle in his third try when trainer John Sadler stretched him out around two turns for the first time late last fall. Midnight Hawk won for fun in his first start, going 7 1/2 furlongs for trainer Bob Baffert. Doug O'Neill had been running I'll Wrap It Up in shorter races, then on the grass, but he finally won when he caught an off-the-turf route in his last outing. Life Is a Joy won his first three starts up north but hasn't found the winning edge in three tries in Southern California. Trainer Simon Callaghan repeatedly tried Ontology against graded stakes runners but he finally won when finally returned to the maiden ranks on Boxing Day at Santa Anita, albeit on the turf. Top Fortitude won at first asking at Hollywood Park nearly two months ago, earning a big speed figure.
Here's an unlikely juxtaposition of words: Calvin Borel and More Than Beauty. That jockey-mount combo is one of the nine options in Friday's $100,000 Dixie Belle Stakes at Oaklawn, a 6-furlong sprint. More Than Beauty, a More Than Ready filly, has two wins and a second from four starts, the second coming in the Debutante at Churchill Downs, where she led briefly before losing to Fiftyshadesofgold by 8 lengths. All of that's enough to make her the 8-5 morning-line favorite. Borel is the regular rider for More Than Beauty, who is trained by his brother, Cecil. Not far behind in the oddsmaker's estimation is Street Story, a daughter of Street Sense who broke her maiden at Churchill Downs in her second try, then finished second in the Letellier Memorial at Grounds. Wicked Dixie, Xray Vision and Zip On also are in the mix.
In another 6-furlong event, five are signed on for Sunday's $100,000 Ruthless Stakes at Aqueduct. Leading that field is a two-filly field for the Kiaran McLaughlin barn headed by Mamdooha. That Daahar filly won the Gin Talking States at Laurel Park in her last outing.
Summer Front fronts a field of 10 for Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Fort Lauderdale Handicap at Gulfstream Park. This is a handicap largely in name as Summer Front was assigned 121 pounds and all the others, 117. The 5-year-old son of War Front won a pair of Grade III events last year and closed out his campaign with a second-place showing in the Grade II Citation Handicap at Hollywood Park in late November, losing by a nose to Silentio. Slumber could be a bit of a sleeper here. The Juddmonte Farms runner missed the board in his last two starts but those were both world-class, Grade I events. Csaba, entered for main-track-only, has been running well, though he lost decisively to a long shot in his last outing. He won the Hal's Hope on the main track on this card last season and is more likely to resurface there on Saturday, weather permitting. Howe Great hasn't won often since his good run in 2012 but is usually close at the finish. Ditto for the Bill Mott-trained Tetradrachm. Nikki's Sandcastle finished fourth in last year's Fort Lauderdale Handicap but comes off a win in the Grade Fayette Stakes at Keeneland back in October He also is cross-entered in the Hal's Hope.
On the main track
Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Hal's Hope Stakes at Gulfstream Park is confused by cross-entries in the co-featured turf race. If Nikki's Sandcastle and/or Csaba go in this 1-mile dirt event, don't forget to factor them into the handicapping. Otherwise, Jackson Bend is getting a little long in the tooth at age 7 but has plenty of back class, including a win in this race in 2012. Simmstown has won two straight, including the Kenny Noe Jr. Handicap at Calder in his last. Lea and Uncaptured have significant graded stakes experience, if not success.
The racing community obviously is happy to have Oaklawn Park back in the swing, judging by the full field for Saturday's $100,000 Fifth Season Stakes at 1 1/16 miles. The entry of Drogue and Cyber Secret is the 7-5 morning line favorite, with Jaguar Paw and Occasional View also getting a good look. Cyber Secret is the key. The 5-year-old son of Broken Vow won the Grade III Razorback Handicap over the Oaklawn oval last spring, then followed that with a victory in the Grade II Oaklawn Handicap. He comes off a win in the Prairie Bayou Stakes at Turfway Park last month and Saturday's race will be his third back after a six-month layoff. Trainer Lynn Whiting gave him a breeze over the track on Sunday. Drogue, a 6-year-old son of Victory Gallop, makes his stakes debut but had a great summer and fall in the allowance ranks in Louisville. Jaguar Paw was fifth -- only about 4 lengths back at odds of 90-1 -- in that dramatic showdown between Will Take Charge and Game On Dude at Churchill Downs in the Grade I Clark Handicap Nov. 29. Don't forget to get your barbecue after the races. Smokin In Style, Stubby's, McLard's and others all offer quality Q.
Out west, seven are in the mix for Saturday's $200,000, Grade II San Pasqual at 1 1/16 miles over the Santa Anita dirt. Trainer Bob Baffert keeps plugging away with Drill, who has not won since the Grade III Laz Barrera Memorial at Hollywood Park in May of 2012. Blueskiesandrainbows finished second in the Breeders' Cup Marathon and then won the Grade III Native Diver Stakes at Hollywood, going 9 furlongs in the latter, and continues to cut back on distance. Blingo is back after a two-race visit to New York, which produced one minor stakes win. Majestic City has been getting better for trainer Ron Ellis. Rousing Sermon was third in the Native Diver and seldom fails to figure in the exotic payoffs.
News and notes:
D. Wayne Lukas isn't one of the three finalists for an Eclipse Award as top trainer of 2013 but he will pick up some hardware at the banquet anyway. The voting blocs announced this week Lukas, 78, will receive the Award of Merit at the 43rd annual Eclipse Awards dinner Jan. 18 at Gulfstream Park. "In light of the people who have received this award in the past, it is humbling and special to me ... I've won a few Eclipse Awards in my career but this is the center accomplishment," Lukas said.
The nominees for the actual, voted Eclipse Awards are:
Horse of the Year: Wise Dan, Will Take Charge and Mucho Macho Man
2-year-old male: Havana, New Year's Day and Shared Belief
2-year-old filly: Chriselliam, Ria Antonia and She's a Tiger
3-year-old male: Orb, Will Take Charge and Palace Malice
3-year-old filly: Beholder, Princess of Sylmar and Close Hatches
Older male: Wise Dan, Game On Dude and Mucho Macho Man
Older female: Royal Delta, Joyful Victory and Tiz Miz Sue
Male sprinter: Points Offthebench, Sahara Sky and Secret Circle
Female sprinter: Groupie Doll, Dance to Bristol and Mizdirection
Male turf horse: Wise Dan, Magician and Point of Entry
Female turf horse: Dank, Laughing and Mizdirection
Steeplechase horse: Divine Fortune, Gustavian and Italian Wedding
Owner: Juddmonte Farms, Midwest Thoroughbreds and Ken and Sarah Ramsey
Breeder: Adena Springs, Morton Fink and Ken and Sarah Ramsey
Trainer: Bob Baffert, Bill Mott and Todd Pletcher
Apprentice jockey: Victor Carrasco, Manuel Franco and Edgard Zayas