Kentucky Derby hopefuls will be put to the test Saturday in New York, California, Florida and Kentucky as the "Road to the Roses" rounds the first turn.
Aqueduct hosts the $200,000 Grade III Withers Stakes, leading to Empire State's ultimate Derby prep, the Wood Memorial. At Santa Anita, it's the $200,000, Grade II Robert B. Lewis Memorial, with an eye toward the Santa Anita Derby. In Florida, action moves to the Gulf Coast and the $200,000, Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. Turfway Park showcases the $50,000 WEBN Stakes, a prep for the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes.
And could an undefeated Louisiana-bred named Beanwah'smachine step up enough in his 3-year-old debut at Delta Downs against state-bred competition to cast an eye toward bigger things?
Three-year-old fillies go on the turf in Saturday's $100,000 Florida Oaks at Tampa Bay and try sprinting in Saturday's $75,000 Marshua Stakes at Laurel Park in Maryland.
Sprinkled in among the 3-year-old events are graded stakes across the spectrum and from coast to coast. In Dubai, the World Cup Carnival features the UAE 1000 Guineas.
Don't go away. And don't touch that dial.
In the Withers, Count Fleet Stakes winner Alpha is the even-money favorite for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. The Bernardini colt was runner-up to Union Rags in the Champaign last fall before finishing 11th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. His season-opening win in the Count Fleet came despite a stumble at the start. Elsewhere in the seven-horse field, Swag Daddy, Tiger Walk and King Kid also have some stakes experience.
"The Withers is an important race because it's graded and you don't get to run in the Derby unless you have those graded stakes earnings," McLaughlin said Wednesday. "When you look at the schedule, you start with the first Saturday in May and work back from there. We are taking the Withers as an important step, and maybe, maybe, afterward we'll talk about what we're going to do."
At Santa Anita, Liaison is the clear choice on paper in the Lewis, which also offers those all-important graded stakes earnings. The Indian Charlie colt won his last three starts in 2011, including the Grade I Cash Call Futurity at Hollywood Park, for trainer Bob Baffert. He has been working frequently and relatively quickly during January in preparation for his 3-year-old debut. With $375,000 in earnings from the Cash Call, Liaison is virtually assured a spot in the Kentucky Derby gate if he continues to progress. It's the others who need the graded stakes purse money.
Ever hopeful, Baffert Wednesday noted of Liaison, "He just keeps moving forward."
The very contentious eight-horse Lewis field also includes Isn't He Clever, winning of the Riley Allison Futurity at Sunland Park in New Mexico; Rousing Sermon, second in both the Real Quiet Stakes and the Cash Call for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer; I'll Have Another, who was second in the Best Pal Stakes at Del Mar but then sixth in the Three Chimneys Hopeful at Saratoga over a sloppy track; and Sky Kingdom, another Baffert trainee who was fourth in the Cash Call.
The Sam F. Davis holds a bit of intrigue in the form of State of Play, who won the Grade II With Anticipation at Saratoga over the grass last year and then finished 12th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. Why the intrigue? State of Play is owned by Team Valor International and trained by Graham Motion -- the same team that moved Animal Kingdom from his early grass venue to Kentucky Derby victory in his first start on real dirt. Assistant trainer Heather Craig said after Thursday's post position draw some people consider State of Play "fat" but she sees him as "big boned."
"I think he looks a lot fitter than he did as a 2-year," Craig said. "Tampa Bay Downs is not an easy track to handle but he has been training great and has handled the dirt better than we could have imagined."
While the War Front colt's question marks are his first start as a 3-year-old, first start on the main track and the inside post position in an 11-horse field, all of the other prospective starters would seem to have even more to prove. Three of them, however -- Prospective, Reveron and Burning Time -- are stakes winners. And the ever-present Pletcher has a potential upsetter in the lightly raced lightly raced Ecabroni.
Turfway Park's WEBN Stakes has the weekend's smallest purse for 3-year-olds with potential but it is a prep for the Spiral Stakes, which has been a significant proving ground for Derby contenders. The WEBN drew 10 entries, including the first three finishers in last month's Turfway Prevue -- Mr. Prankster, Magical Season and Frankie Is Rock.
Other weekend action:
The Dubai World Cup Carnival continues Friday with the featured UAE 1000 Guineas, the first "classic" of the season at 1,600 meters. Seven were entered, including Godolphin's Gamilati, who had no trouble capturing her 1,400-meter trial heat over the all-weather surface. Frankie Dettori is listed to ride for trainer Mahmoud Al Zarooni. A main rival may be stablemate Pimpernel, who comes back from a win in a listed event in England in October.
"We were delighted with Gamilati when she won the trial and this 1,600 meters should suit her well," Al Zarooni said. "With the advantage of that run under her belt, she looks our main hope with Pimpernel not having had a run yet here or on Tapeta. She is a nice filly also and will hopefully run well."
Also on the Friday card is the Group 3 Al Shindagha Sprint at 1,200 meters -- a potential trial heat for the Dubai Golden Shaheen March 31. Addictive Dream and Captain Obvious, already Carnival winners, are among the favorites -- the latter for Singapore-based trainer Steven Burridge. Alo Pura, track record holder, also is in the field.
Santa Anita has three graded stakes in addition to the Lewis. Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Strub Stakes is for 4-year-olds going 9 furlongs on the main track and features the likes of Tapizar, Jaycito and Prayer for Relief. The $150,000, Grade II Arcadia Stakes is 1 mile on the lawn with Mr. Commons a likely choice.
Sunday it's the $200,000 San Antonio Stakes at 9 furlongs on the main track for 4-year-olds and up with Game On Dude making his first start since finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Classic. If the 5-year-old Awesome Again gelding can handle the half dozen rivals in the San Antonio, he could be a ticket back to Dubai for Baffert and a first-time ride in the UAE for Chantal Sutherland.
Tampa Bay Downs' Saturday card supports the Sam Davis with the $150,000, Grade III Endeavour Stakes for fillies and mares going 1 1/16 miles on the grass and the $100,000, ungraded Florida Oaks, also at 1 1/16 miles.
Aqueduct has the $150,000, Grade III Toboggan Stakes for sprinters on the Saturday card, along with the $100,000 Correction Stakes for sprinting ladies.
And at Delta Downs, big bucks are on the line for Louisiana-breds in Louisiana Premier Night, featuring all the usual divisions plus some starter stakes. There are full fields and some nice betting opportunities. One to watch out for is Beanwah'smachine -- currently 4-for-4, including the Louisiana Champions Day Juvenile and the Louisiana Futurity. The Successful Appeal gelding is making his 3-year-old debut, with Shane Sellers up, in the 7-furlong Premier Night Prince. Al Stall Jr. trains.
As always in these Louisiana-bred things, Star Guitar is the overwhelming favorite in the featured event, the $200,000 Premier Night Championship Stakes. The 7-year-old entire son of Quiet American has won nine of his last 10 races and is 21-for-27 overall with earnings in excess of $1.5 million.
News and notes
Speaking of Animal Kingdom, Motion said Wednesday his Kentucky Derby winner likely will make his 4-year-old debut Feb. 25 in the Tampa Bay Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs -- "just too logical a spot for me not to run him there." The race is 1 1/16 miles on the grass and, Motion said, "gives him a chance to work three more times. Ultimately, this is all about getting him started and giving him the best opportunity to go to Dubai." Animal Kingdom has not raced since suffering a hind leg fracture in the June 11, 2011, Belmont Stakes.