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Tough field for top Kentucky Derby prep, but when will the Derby be run?

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
Tough field for top Kentucky Derby prep, but when will the Derby be run?
Nadal, seen winning the San Vicente in just his second career start, is the early favorite for Saturday's $1 million Rebel at Oaklawn Park -- the weekend's top Kentucky Derby prep. Photo courtesy of Santa Anita

March 13 (UPI) -- Saturday's $1 million Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas pits some of the top Kentucky Derby prospects against one another with the winner virtually guaranteed a spot in the Run for the Roses -- whenever it's run.

Churchill Downs Inc. said Thursday it plans to host the Derby on its traditional first Saturday in May, but is keeping options open in light of the COVID-19 situation.

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"With the event still seven weeks away, a decision will be made closer to that date, with respect to postponing the event until later in the year, using the most recent information while working with and seeking guidance from public health experts and authorities," the company said.

The Dubai Racing Club announced Thursday that the Dubai World Cup program will be run March 28 without spectators in the massive Meydan grandstand. Most U.S. tracks announced similar action for an indefinite time.

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Whenever they may be run, more prospects for the Triple Crown races will be on display this weekend at Turfway Park, Laurel Park and Santa Anita.

Most of the top older females are in action between the Azeri at Oaklawn Park and the Beholder Mile at Santa Anita -- a couple of really tough heats -- but two graded turf sprints at Santa Anita were postponed because of wet weather.

On the international front, it's two weeks until the Dubai World Cup, two weeks before the return of Grade 1 racing in Japan and one week before the Hong Kong Derby. And with Cheltenham's jumping antics in the book, the flat racing season looms in Ireland, England and the Continent. This week? Crickets.

RELATED Authentic, Mischevious Alex win Derby preps

Meanwhile, the racing world continues to reel from federal indictments alleging the use of undetectable performance-enhancing drugs by trainers including Maximum Security's Jason Servis and Florida heavyweight Jorge Navarro.

Rivals are demanding that Maximum Security, trained by Servis, be stripped of his 2019 victories in the Grade I Haskell and Grade I Cigar Mile and last month's $20 million Saudi Cup. Maximum Security, already the only horse ever disqualified from a Kentucky Derby victory because of an on-track foul, also could lose his title as top 3-year-old of 2019.

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On to more pleasant topics:

The Road to the Roses

The $1 million Rebel at Oaklawn Park is the highlight of the weekend for Kentucky Derby hopefuls. But it's vastly encouraging to see Turfway Park in northern Kentucky, recently purchased by Churchill Downs Inc., making a comeback with significant stakes surrounding Saturday's Derby prep, the Jeff Ruby Steaks.

The race is named for a chain of steakhouse restaurants. A few decades back, Turfway's springtime program included some rich and prestigious heats centered around this race. A Breeders' Cup-like Kentucky Cup program in the fall also attracted national names. May they all prosper again.

In Arkansas

Nadal, another of trainer Bob Baffert's strong 3-year-old herd, tops a field of eight entered for Saturday's $1 million Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn Park. Nadal, a Blame colt out of the Pulpit mare Ascending Angel, is 2-for-2 with a win in the Grade II San Vicente in his latest outing.

The winner's 50 points would give Baffert two solid entries for the Run for the Roses, adding to Authentic's 50-point win last weekend in the San Felipe. Joel Rosario will ride and Nadal drew the rail.

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Steve Asmussen entered three in the Rebel and they drew the No. 2, 3 and 4 slots in the gate. Silver Prospector, by Declaration of War, comes off a win over the Oaklawn track in the Grade III Southwest and last fall won the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs. Basin, a Liam's Map colt, has not raced since winning the Grade I Hopeful at Saratoga in September. Excession has been chasing rivals in New Orleans.

American Theorem was second in the Grade I American Pharoah Stakes -- named for his sire -- at Santa Anita in September and has been idle since. Three Technique was second in the Smarty Jones over the Oaklawn track and could be a sleeper here. No Parole is 3-for-3 but all his races were against fellow Louisiana-breds and Coach Bahe is a recent Fair Grounds maiden winner.

In Kentucky

Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Jeff Ruby Steaks on the Turfway Park all-weather track hasn't yet ascended to the level it enjoyed through the '80s and '90s, when it produced the winners of several of the Triple Crown races, including Animal Kingdom. But it does have a full field and the winner gets 20 points toward a potential start in Louisville.

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The major players, according to the morning line, are Field Pass and Invader, who drew the No. 12 and No. 11 gates, respectively. Invader, trained by Wesley Ward, comes off a victory in the local prep, the John Battaglia Memorial. Field Pass, a Mike Maker charge, was last seen winning the Dania Beach Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

Since the race at various times was known as the Jim Beam Stakes, it's worth noting that this year's field includes not only Fancy Liquor but also Jack Daniel's. Oh ... and The Stiff.

Also:

Saturday's $100,000 Private Terms Stakes at Laurel Park often is seen as a springboard to the Preakness Stakes. Seven are set with the oddsmaker nodding to Big City Bob, a Shanghai Bobby colt last seen finishing third in the Grade I Champagne at Belmont Park last October; Lebda, winner of the local Miracle Wood Stakes in his last outing; and Belmont Park invader Took Charge.

Saturday's $100,000 Rushaway Stakes at Turfway Park used to be seen as a race for 3-year-olds not quite ready for the competition of the day's big event and this renewal fits that same bill. It also is as wide open as one could wish, at least on paper, with only two of the eight entrants listed at double-digit odds on the morning line.

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But with trainers like Mike Maker, Saffie Joseph Jr., Kenny McPeek, Steve Asmussen and Brad Cox patronizing the entry box, there are some potential improvers in the bunch. If nothing else, watch for Preakness candidates here, too.

One of Baffert's late-bloomers, Charlatan, makes his second career start Saturday in a 1-mile allowance tilt at Santa Anita. The Speightstown colt, a $700,000 yearling purchase, was the easiest of winners in his first start Feb. 16. If it seems too late for him, remember that Justify's first start was Feb. 18, 2018, and less than four months later he was a Triple Crown winner. And, if we recall correctly, Mr. Baffert trained him, too.

In the news

As advertised, King Guillermo, the 49-1 upset winner of last weekend's Grade II Tampa Bay Derby, has been nominated to the Triple Crown. His owners made the $6,000 late payment on Tuesday. The colt stands at No. 5 on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard and is a lock for a spot in the starting gate.

Kentucky Oaks preps

Saturday's $150,000 Maxim Crane Works Bourbonette Oaks at Turfway Park got a full field of 12 plus one also-eligible. Trainer Peter Miller thinks enough of his Constitution filly, Laura's Light, that he shipped her from California for this event.

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Laura's Light has won three of her four starts including the Grade III Sweet Life at Santa Anita and her career bow over the Golden Gate Fields all-weather course so the Turfway all-weather shouldn't be a major concern. Her only loss was a second to the undefeated Alms in the Grade III Jimmy Durante at Del Mar. Pass the Plate, Queen of God and Impeccable Style also merited an oddsmaker's nod.

Naughty Thoughts is the morning-line favorite among eight entries for Saturday's $100,000 Beyond the Wire Stakes at Laurel Park. The daughter of The Factor emerged from the claiming ranks last year to make the frame in a couple of black-type events over the track and was an easy upset winner in the local Wide Country Stakes in her last outing. Princess Cadey, second in the Wide Country, and Bella Aurora, who disappointed in that race as the odds-on choice, also return.

Distaff

Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Beholder Mile at Santa Anita attracted a lovely bunch, topped by Hard Not To Love. The 4-year-old Hard Spun filly is 5-for-6 with her last two races resulting in victory in the Grade I La Brea and the Grade II Santa Monica.

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Ollie's Candy makes her first start since finishing fourth in the Breeders' Cup Distaff and rarely has been out of the money against top opposition. Bob Baffert saddles Mother Mother and Der Lu, both of whom have been in the frame at this level. The same is true of Zusha. In all, seven are set to face the starter for the 1-mile trip.

And, speaking of lovely bunches, there's Saturday's $350,000 Grade II Azeri at Oaklawn Park. This one, at 1 1/16 miles, got the likes of last year's Kentucky Oaks winner and Breeders' Cup Distaff third, Serengeti Empress; Lady Apple, who beat Serengeti Princess by 1/2 length in the Grade III Houston Ladies Classic on Jan. 26; Street Band, a multiple graded-stakes winner who was third in Houston; and Mylady Curlin, also a multiple top-level winner and fourth in the Houston race.

Arrifana makes her 2020 debut in Saturday's $100,000 Nellie Morse Stakes at Laurel Park. The 4-year-old Curlin filly won her first four starts last year before finishing second in the Grade III Comely at Aqueduct Nov. 29, then went on vacation. She's a solid favorite in a field of seven.

Saturday's $100,000 Latonia Stakes at Turfway Park has a full field with Wesley Ward charge Speedy Solution as the lukewarm favorite off a couple nice local efforts.

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Filly and Mare Sprint

Saturday's $100,000 Correction Stakes at Aqueduct features Bridlewood Cat, Piedi Bianchi and Kept True in a field of seven going 6 furlongs. None is particularly distinguished but it's a good wagering opportunity.

Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Hurricane Bertie Stakes at Gulfstream Park drew nine distaffers with the 3-1 morning-line favorite, Blamed, drawing the rail. The 5-year-old Blame mare has eight wins and two seconds from 12 lifetime starts and makes her third start after a long layoff. It's a pretty well-matched field for the 7-furlongs dash.

Classic

Steve Asmussen fields three of the seven entrants for Saturday's $350,000 Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park, including two of the top three morning-line favorites -- Bankit and Snapper Sinclair. That pair finished second and third behind Warrior's Charge in the Razorback Handicap on Feb. 17.

His third starter, Laughing Fox, won the Oaklawn Invitational last May but has not hit the board in four intervening starts. Pioneer Spirit and Night Ops figure to have chances while D. Wayne Lukas looks to get Bravazo back into form.

Saturday's $150,000 TwinSpires Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park renews another race with a storied history -- none of those yarns more dramatic than the dead-heat for victory between Silver Charm and Wild Rush in the 1998 renewal.

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The 2020 version has a full gate with two also-eligibles. The field includes both 2018 Jeff Ruby Steaks winner Blended Citizen, coming off a win in the Grade III Louisiana Stakes at Fair Grounds, and Somelikeithotbrown, last year's Jeff Ruby hero, who prepped with a local allowance score. They are the favorites in this crowd.

Alwaysmining and Someday Jones are the oddsmaker's picks among seven set for Saturday's $100,000 Harrison E. Johnson Memorial at Laurel Park. Alwaysmining, a 4-year-old Stay Thirsty gelding, comes to this off wins in the Jennings Stakes and John B. Campbell Stakes, both at Laurel. Last year he ran off six straight wins at the track before finishing 11th in the Preakness. Someday Jones, a 7-year-old son of Smarty Jones, was third in the Campbell.

Turf Sprint

Saturday's $100,000 Grade III San Simeon and Sunday's $100,000 Irish O'Brien for fillies and mares at Santa Anita were postponed because of threatened wet weather.

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