And on Super Bowl Sunday -- but well before that struggle gets under way in New Jersey -- the Palos Verdes Stakes at Santa Anita features the winners of last year's Breeders' Cup Sprint and Met Mile hooking up in a short field.
There are some Kentucky Oaks preps, some other well-matched turf races and dirt sprints and a great state-bred card in Louisiana.
On the international front, what would a winter weekend be without a Hong Kong race looking to generate competition for World Cup night in Dubai? We've got one, along with a bit of a caveat.
Intrigued? Who wouldn't be? Read on.
Kentucky Derby trail
There are four races on the weekend agenda -- two in Florida, one in New York and one in Kentucky -- that conceivably could have a bearing on Triple Crown preps, although the horses will have to move ahead pretty significantly to earn that next step.
The "official" prep race, as designed in its wisdom by Churchill Downs, is Saturday's $250,000, Grade III Withers Stakes at 1 1/16 miles over the Aqueduct inner course. The winner gets 10 points toward a Kentucky Derby start, second gets 4 points, third gets 2 and the fourth-place finisher gets a single point. The likely favorites are two New York-breds who have yet to face open company. That doesn't mean they're not good. Samraat has led at every call in each of his last three races and, when stretched out to two turns in the Damon Runyon Stakes Dec. 18, the Noble Causeway colt won by 16 3/4 lengths. The other, Uncle Sigh, a son of Indian Charlie, won by 14 1/2 lengths while breaking his maiden in his second race at Parx Racing. Also in this field are Classic Giacnroll and Scotland, the second- and third-place finishers in the Jan. 4 Jerome, Honorable Judge and Street Gent.
Saturday's $250,000, Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs finds eight contenders heavy on promise but light on proof -- at least so far. Trainer Wesley Ward has Noble Cornerstone, a Noble Causeway gelding who won at first asking in New York, then finished second in the Remington Springboard Mile in Oklahoma in December. Todd Pletcher has a couple of recent maiden winners, who could move up quickly with a big effort. Asserting Bear ran well in Canada as a 2-year-old for trainer Reade Baker. Ditto Matador for trainer Mark Casse, although he was well beaten by Asserting Bear in their last start at Woodbine. This is the time of year when new names surface and this is the kind of race that can produce them. Oddly, like the Illinois Derby, it's not a Kentucky Derby qualifying race.
Neither is Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park. That makes more sense, since the Hutcheson is run at 7 furlongs and it's time for the youngsters to be moving around two turns if they hope to get 1 1/4 miles on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs. Still, this race turns up an occasional prospect. Trainer Tim Ice has entered Mighty Brown, a Big Brown colt who took forever to get his first win, then scored in back-to-back starts in Tampa before finishing up the track in the OBS Sprint in his last outing. His pedigree says he should be able to go farther but apparently not. Pablo Del Monte shortens up after running fourth as the favorite in the 1-mile Gulfstream Park Derby. Wildcat Red is back from a second-place effort in that race. Pletcher has two here, too, although both need to improve to be competitive. Among the rest, one to watch is Long On Value. The Value Plus colt won his first three starts but then finished sixth in both the Grade I Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga and Grade I Champaign at Belmont. Trainer Bill Mott has been working him regularly at Payson Park and John Velazquez takes the mount, so he's likely to be short on value despite the two losses.
Eight are signed on for Saturday's 96 Rock Stakes at Turfway Park. The race is only 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather course but it is a steppingstone toward the Spiral Stakes this spring and the Spiral -- or Jim Beam Stakes or Galleryfurniture.com Stakes in its various recent permutations -- has produced legitimate Triple Crown runners. Bisque, an Indiana-bred gelding by Drinkwiththedevil, already is stakes-placed in West Virginia and Indiana and comes off an allowance win at Fair Grounds for trainer Tom Amoss. He will be trying the all-weather course for the first time. Artemus Coalmine, a gray Mineshaft colt trained by Mike Maker, looks promising with a win and a second in two starts over the track. The others look like they all could share a name with the steed who drew the outside post position -- I Need a Miracle.
Four stakes are on tap for the Oaks crowd.
Streaming, the undefeated winner of the Grade I Hollywood Starlet, is the top attraction in Saturday's $300,000, Grade I Las Virgenes Stakes at Santa Anita. The Bob Baffert trainee won at first asking at Hollywood Park in November and returned in just three weeks to win the Starlet with a pace-stalking trip. She's a Smart Strike filly out of a Storm Cat mare. Sushi Empire finished third in the Grade III Miesque at Hollywood, then won the Blue Norther at Santa Anita in her last outing. Arethusa, an A.P. Indy filly, was a well-beaten fifth in the Starlet after winning the Sharp Cat Stakes at Hollywood in her previous start. Earthflight makes her first start off the plane from England, where she won two straight in the minor leagues. The other four have yet to beat winners.
Ballylee and Vero Amore and the Irish- and Italian-themed morning-line favorites for Saturday's $100,000 Busher Stakes at Aqueduct. Ballylee, a Darley homebred by Street Cry, comes off a decisive maiden win in her first career start. Vero Amore just missed as the pacesetter in the $100,000 Ruthless after two straight wins at Parx. In truth, you can't love her outside post. Fierce Boots won the Busanda in her last outing and will provide speed.
A nicely balanced, if unproven, field of 10 is in for Saturday's $100,000 Martha Washington Stakes at 1 mile at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. Kiss Moon has won both her starts -- one at Turfway Park and one at Oaklawn. Street Story won the Dixie Belle locally in her last start and ran second in the Letellier Stakes at Fair Grounds before that. But the 3-1 morning-line favorite, Euphrosyne, ran second three times before finally breaking through with a 6 3/4-lengths victory in an off-the-turf maiden affair at Fair Grounds in her last start.
A full field of 10, plus two also-eligibles, is on tap for Saturday's $100,000 Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. The morning-line favorites wide-open race are Comme Chez Soi, Please Explain, Light Bringer and Dame Dorothy. Also in here is Nesso, who finished 10th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf but won the Gasparilla Stakes on the Tampa dirt in her only start since shipping east.
Akeed Mofeed, champion of the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Cup in December, makes his return in Sunday's HK Group 3 Centenary Vase. While he clearly is the class of the field, trainer Richard Gibson warns the Centenary is a prep and that he doesn't have his stable star fully cranked for the 1,800-meters comeback bid. And, there is some proven competition.
"He's 85 percent fit as of today," Gibson said at mid-week. "So he's not going to be at the very top of his game. This is a prep for the big one."
And by that, he meant the HK Group 1 Citibank Hong Kong Gold Cup at 2,000 meters on Feb. 23, and then either of the top marquee races at Meydan on World Cup night in Dubai, March 29. Others expected in Sunday's lineup include Dan Excel, winner of the 2013 Group 1 Champions Mile, who already has one race under his girth this year. Several others in the prospective lineup also have the credentials to be around at the finish -- unless 85 percent of Akeed Mofeed is too much to handle.
(Richard Gross will supply a full report in the Monday Roundup)
Last year's Group 1 Fillies Mile winner Certify brought smiles to Godolphin faces with an easy victory in her first 2014 start, Thursday's $200,000, Group 2 Cape Verdi at Meydan. With Mickael Barzalona up, Certify swept by the early speed with 400 meters left and drew off to win as he pleased. Certify now is undefeated in five starts.
"Hopefully she can go on to justify the ultra-high regard we have for her," said trainer Charlie Appleby.
In the secondary feature, the 1,800-meters Al Rashidiya, Sheik Hamdan bin Rasheed al Maktoum and trainer Mike De Kock, sent out the winner and runner-up -- Mujaarib and Mushreq.
Also, Friday is the first-ever meeting at Al Ain Racecourse, a long-time UAE training facility that is being upgraded to a full-bore racing facility. The 2,500-meters sand and fiber track is the longest in the UAE.
Back in the USA:
Sunday's $200,000, Grade II Palos Verdes Stakes starts early (12:30 p.m. PST) to avoid any potential conflict with the Super Bowl warmups and it's a good thing, too, because it promises to be a great race. Three of the five starters are saddled by Jerry Hollendorfer but they all have to beat Secret Circle, who makes his first start since winning the Breeders' Cup Sprint nearly three months ago. The 5-year-old son of Eddington has started very sparingly for trainer Bob Baffert but has been working regularly enough and quickly enough at Santa Anita to impress anyone. He turned in a handy 5 furlongs in 48 4/5 seconds on Monday, fastest of 40 that day at the distance. Hollendorfer's top contender is Sahara Sky, who returns for the first time since winning the Met Mile at Belmont in May. He also has been working well, although not so quickly as Secret Circle. And, it's worth nothing Sahara Sky won this race last year over a good field. If either of the top two falter, look to Majestic Sky, fourth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint and winner of the Grade III Vernon O. Underwood Stakes at Hollywood Park in late November. Moonshine Bay, another of the Hollendorfer trio, steps way up in class but gets Gary Stevens in the irons and for that reason alone is worth a look.
Vagabond Shoes and No Jet Lag are the co-highweights among 10 in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Arcadia Stakes going 1 mile on the grass. Vagabond Shoes cuts way back in distance after finishing fifth in the Breeders' Cup Turf at 1 1/2 miles. He was ninth in this race last year. A more likely choice is Suggestive Boy, a 6-year-old Argentine-bred who won the Grade II Arcadia and the Grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile in his last two outings. No Jet Lag showed no jet lag in winning his first two starts after relocating from England but lagged badly in his last two. Unbridled's Note and Procurement seem to be going well.
Fillies and mares tackle 6 furlongs in Saturday's $100,000 Correction Stakes at Aqueduct. A dozen were entered with Lion D N A and Delightful Quality the lukewarm morning-line choices. One to watch: I'm Mom's Favorite is making her first start since a seventh-place finish in last summer's Grade I Test Stakes at Saratoga put paid to her 3-year-old campaign. The Indian Charlie filly is starting for the first time for trainer Robert Reid Jr. and has been progressing in works at Parx Racing.
The David Jacobson entry of Strapping Groom and Praetereo is the odds-on favorite among seven betting interests in Saturday's $150,000, Grade II Toboggan Stakes at 6 furlongs. Irad Ortiz Jr. is named on both so check the changes. Strapping Groom won the Grade I Forego at Saratoga last summer and in his last outing won the Gravesend Handicap over the Big A's inner track. Don't ignore Candyman E, Dads Caps and Don Tito.
Tampa Bay Downs
Salto is the 2-1 morning line favorite among 12 entered for Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Lambhome South Tampa Bay Stakes going 1 1/16 miles on the grass. Salto, a 6-year-old son of Pivotal, has been a consistent performer in graded stakes for trainer Pletcher. He comes off a close second-place finish in the El Prado Stakes over the Gulfstream Park lawn in his last outing.
There's a big, tempting card for Louisiana-breds on Premier Night on Saturday. The competitive card culminates in the $200,000 Championship Stakes where the 8/4 morning line favorite is none other than Sunbean -- a Brahms gelding who at this time last year was squarely on the Triple Crown trail with trainer Al Stall Jr.. That didn't pan out but he's been unbeatable against state-breds and finished second in the open Super Derby Prelude last August at Louisiana Downs. Also, Sunbean is a cool name.