Forte, shown winning the Fountain of Youth in his 3-year-old debut, is the solid favorite for Saturday's Florida Derby. Photo by Jamie Newell, courtesy of Gulfstream Park
March 31 (UPI) -- The end is in sight on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, with two of the "big five" prep races set for this Saturday -- one of them involving the favorite for the Run for the Roses, 2022 juvenile champ Forte.
The weekend slate also includes some final tune-ups for the Kentucky Oaks and assorted other major stakes from coast to coast.
Internationally, there are some preliminaries for the European Classics in Ireland and France and four more Group 1 races in Australia.
With so much going on, it can't hurt to check the thoughts of industry guru Jude Feld, whose wit and wisdom reside at www.popejude.com .
And with that, away we go.
The Road to the Roses
This weekend and next will just about set the field for the Kentucky Derby. Saturday's Florida Derby and Arkansas Derby and the finale of the European Road to the Kentucky Derby are followed on April 8 by the Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial and Blue Grass.
Each of those awards 100 Derby points to the winner, 40 to the runner-up and on down through 30, 20 and 10 to the next three past the judge.
The Road to the Roses ends with the Grade III Lexington at Keeneland April 15 with points on the 20-8-6-4-2 scale and then it's on to Louisville.
Saturday's $1 million Curlin Florida Derby shapes up as a virtual one-horse race for division-leading Forte while the $1.25 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park looks like a wide-open scramble.
Forte could be a heavier favorite in the Florida Derby only if it were a walkover. Still, last year's juvenile champion and Breeders' Cup winner has 11 rivals presumably looking for the $200,000 and 40 Kentucky Derby points coming to the runner-up.
The money's good and the 40 points might be enough to qualify for the Run for the Roses.
Forte won the Grade II Fountain of Youth for fun in his first start of the year and has been pleasing trainer Todd Pletcher ever since. But no one knows better than Pletcher that the job gets harder as the races go by.
"Part of what we've been trying to do in the mornings is sort of replicate his running style, sitting off a horse just a little bit and then teaching him to finish up and kind of stay focused," Pletcher said after Forte drew gate No. 11 in a field of 12.
"As impressively as he's won a couple of these races, he's kind of come to the wire with his ears up taking everything in. Obviously, as these races get a little more difficult, he'll need to stay focused."
His regular rider, Irad Ortiz Jr., indicated that's not a problem.
"I have a lot of confidence in him. I trust him. I trust him," Ortiz said. "His mind is for sure changing. He's doing things a little better. He doesn't hesitate. He's not like a 2-year-old anymore. He's figured out what he needs to do, which makes it good for me."
The usual caveats apply. They run these races for a reason and if something unusual happened, Ortiz would not do anything to compromise Forte's chances at Churchill Downs.
Still, as for the other 11 -- we'll chronicle anyone who beats Forte Saturday.
The weather forecast says mid-80s and partly cloudy.
At Oaklawn Park, a good case can be made for at least four of the 11 entrants in the Arkansas Derby -- morning-line favorite Reincarnate, Red Route One, Rocket Can and Angel of Empire.
Red Route One and Reincarnate finished second and third in the Grade II Rebel Feb. 25, a race run on a sloppy track with a significant traffic jam at the top of the stretch. By the time anyone else got untracked, long shot Confidence Game got clear and was gone.
Reincarnate won the Grade III Sham at Santa Anita in his 3-year-old debut. Red Route One was second in the Grade III Southwest at Oaklawn to start his season.
Rocket Can won the Grade III Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park, then finished second in the Fountain of Youth, 4 1/2 lengths in back of Forte. Angel of Empire has not raced since winning the Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on Feb. 18 at odds of nearly 14-1.
The weather guessers are calling for a nice day Saturday, following a very stormy Friday with potentially damaging wind. The track crew will be busy.
Meanwhile, the European Road to the Kentucky Derby reaches its terminus Saturday with the Cardinal Conditions Stakes on the Chelmsford Park all-weather surface.
There are two live Kentucky Derby candidates in the field, including Brave Emperor, who was a late nominee to the Triple Crown, indicating his connections are interested.
Brave Emperor, a Sioux Nation gelding, already is tied at 20 points each for the series lead with Coolmore's colt Cairo, who finished up the track in the March 25 UAE Derby, not liking the dirt surface according to jockey Ryan Moore.
The winner at Chelmsford gets 30 points but, unless that is the Charles Fipke homebred Stormy Entry, Brave Emperor will be the top Derby-nominated horse on the leaderboard.
Brave Emperor has had back-to-back wins at Cagnes-Sur-Mer in France and Kempton Park and the late nomination cost his owners $6,000.
Despite all that, trainer Archie Watson hedges his bets about Louisville, emailing, "Brave Emperor runs on Saturday at Chelmsford. I will have to see where we are at after the race and what the owners decide to do."
Odds and ends
Brave Emperor was among 13 late Triple Crown nominees, including Sunland Park Derby winner Wild On Ice, who holds 50 "Road to the Kentucky Derby" points, good for a tie with Tapit Trice for ninth place on the leaderboard.
Others whose owners coughed up the $6,000 fee include several long shots in Saturday's big races and a few others betting on the come for the Preakness or Belmont Stakes.
The final pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager opens Thursday and closes Saturday -- before post time for either the Florida Derby or Arkansas Derby. Forte is the heavy favorite, posted at 5-2.
"All Other 3-Year-Olds," the usual favorite in the early pools, now starts at 15-1. Remember -- no refund if your horse doesn't run.
The Path to the Oaks
Miracle finished second in the Grade II Rachel Alexandra Stakes at Fair Grounds in her last start, sandwiched by Pretty Mischievous and Hoosier Philly -- a good enough showing to make the Mendelssohn filly the morning-line pick in Saturday's $250,000 Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks.
It's a tough field, though, and as wide open as you'd like with Atomically, Sacred Wish and Dorth Vader all well-credentialed.
Saturday's $600,000 Grade III Fantasy at Oaklawn Park has the top three from the local prep, the Grade III Honeybee -- Wet Paint, Condensation and Grand Love. Wet Paint won that by 3 lengths and is the favorite Saturday.
Oddly, she has never raced on a fast track while compiling a record of three wins and a second from five starts. The Godolphin homebred daughter of Blame has one outing on the turf, one on an all-weather track, two on sloppy surfaces and one on a wet-fast strip. Don't overlook She's Lookin Lucky, who has improved dramatically in her last two outings.
Classic / Dirt Mile
Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Ghostzapper Stakes at Gulfstream Park lacks any superstars and that might be the secret to getting First Captain back on track.
The 5-year-old son of Curlin was going great guns until he threw in a clunker at the Keeneland fall meeting and trainer Shug McGaughey put him away after that. He returns with a steady string of works.
Who remembers Smile Happy? The Runhappy colt won the 2021 Kentucky Jockey Club, finished second in both the Grade II Risen Star at Fair Grounds and the Grade II Blue Grass at Keeneland last year and reported a respectable eighth in the Kentucky Derby.
He then disappeared until March 16, when he won a 1 1/8-miles optional claimer at Oaklawn Park and he's back for Saturday's $400,000 Grade III Oaklawn Mile at the same venue.
He's second-favorite on the morning line after West Coast rival Hopper, last seen finishing a close fourth in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap.
Saturday's $200,000 Hot Springs Stakes for 3-year-olds at Oaklawn Park has a mix of also-rans from the local Grade II Rebel and Aqueduct's Grade III Gotham.
The favorite in the 1-mile tilt is Eyeing Clover, fourth in the Gotham, beaten 9 lengths. Carmel Road was transferred from Bob Baffert's barn to Tim Yakteen's after running eighth in the Gotham, but no longer a Kentucky Derby contender, now is back with Baffert.
Sunday's $150,000 Sunland Park Handicap drew six entries to tackle 1 1/8 miles. Sheriff Brown is the 2-1 favorite on the morning line but a solid case can be made for at least three others.
Filly & Mare Turf
Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Orchid Stakes over 1 1/2 miles of turf at Gulfstream Park has two European distaffers making their U.S. debut for trainer Christophe Clement -- Amazing Grace and Atomic Blonde. Both were stakes winners in Europe, Amazing Grace in Baden-Baden in Germany and Atomic Blonde in Italy.
Personal Best and Transient are prominent among the locals in the 10-horse field.
Saturday's $150,000 Sand Springs Stakes at Gulfstream Park is 1 1/16 miles on the lawn with several likely chances among the 10 entries. Chad Brown saddles Marketsegmentation, coming off a good third in the Grade III Endeavour on the Gulf coast.
Princess Theorum was an equally good third in the Grade III Honey Fox at Gulfstream in her last. Preservencia has had a good rest since finishing second in the Grade III Cardinal at Churchill Downs in November.
Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Royal Heroine Stakes at Santa Anita has a field of six. Several have been knocking heads in graded stakes on the circuit without winning.
Seisai, a 4-year-old Gleneagles filly, makes her first U.S. start for trainer John Sadler and owner William Farish, who paid $475,000 for her at the Tattersalls December Mares Sale.
If Abaan gets no early pressure in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Pan American Stakes at Gulfstream Park, he easily could lead the field throughout the 1 1/2 miles. With no other evident speed in the race, that's a real possibility.
Master Piece looks like the big threat while coming off a third in the Grade II Mac Diarameda.
Eight-year-old Therapist has changed hands after two of his last three races and now runs for Michael Dubb and trainer Mike Maker, who moved him out of the claiming ranks to win on the all-weather in his most recent start.
Saturday's $150,000 Appleton Stakes has 12 entries to tackle 1 mile on the Gulfstream Park grass. Among them are the second- and third-place finishers from the Grade III Canadian Turf, Steady On and Fort Washington, and Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes runner-up Winfromwithin.
Lightly raced 5-year-old Striker responded with a front-running win in his first turf race Feb. 12 and could compete if he's healthy.
Saturday's $100,000 Cutler Bay Stakes for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream Park is worth a cautious look. It's 7 1/2 furlongs, which means the first turn is virtually right out of the starting gate, so cast a jaundiced eye on those with an outside post.
There are some promising types, including a British import formerly trained by Joseph Patrick O'Brien.
Bob Baffert will try to get Du Jour over the top in Sunday's $100,000 Grade III American Stakes at Santa Anita after runner-up finishes in the Grade III Thunder Road Stakes and the Grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile in his two most recent starts. Thunder Road winner Earls Rock is among five rivals.
Sunday's $100,000 Pasadena Stakes for 3-year-olds at Santa Anita drew just five entries, with Johannes looking to stretch his winning streak to three.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Few tracks could have the vision and resources to invent a new stakes race, put up a $250,000 purse and angle for top horses in hope of attracting the immediate attention of the graded stakes committee.
That's just what Oaklawn Park has done in putting together Friday's 6-furlong Matron Stakes. The inaugural field includes Wicked Halo, last seen finishing third in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint and 2022 Grade I Acorn Stakes winner Matareya in a field of seven.
Also in the field are West Coast invader Teddy's Barino, with Frankie Dettori in for the ride, and local star Pretty Birdie.
Saturday's $125,000 Serena's Song Stakes at Turfway Park is 6 furlongs on the all-weather track and looks like a real program stabber. Sunday Shoes won at first asking going 6 1/2 furlongs at Turfway on Feb. 15 and is the 7-2 morning line favorite, in part because she's trained by Wesley Ward.
Around the world, around the clock
Randwick offers up four Group 1 races Saturday, covering the age and distance spectrum.
A massive field is set to go 2,400 meters in the Australian Derby with New Zealand Derby winner Sharp 'N' Smart, Rosehill Guineas runner-up Pericles and the promising NZ Derby fourth Mark Twain among the early fancies.
The Doncaster Mile also has a crowd with Mr Brightside and Alligator Blood near the top of a competitive field. Mr Brightside exits a victory in the Group 1 All-Star Mile March 18, in which Alligator Blood was relegated to fourth.
Before that, Alligator Blood banked his fifth Group 1 score in the Futurity at Sandown.
The T.J. Smith Stakes at 1,200 meters drew Nature Strip, I Wish I Win, Giga Kick, Private Eye and nine others. Nature Strip has won this three times straight and a fourth would be historic.
But the 8-year-old champ did not perform to his standards first up in the Black Caviar Lightning, finishing sixth after a 15-week break.
Golden Slipper runner-up Cylinder and fourth-placegetter Don Corleone top a 15-strong field for the ATC Sires Produce Stakes for 2-year-olds at 1,400 meters.
The chase for the Classics is under way and some British invaders look to land the spoils in Saturday's Group 3 Prix Penelope at Saint-Cloud, a race won in 2017 by Sistercharlie, winner of the 2018 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf.
This time around, foreigners make up half the eight-horse field with Aidan O'Brien sending Be Happy and Library.
Tune in to Leopardstown Sunday for trials for both the colts' and fillies' Guineas. It's no surprise that the O'Brien clan -- father Aidan and sons Joseph Patrick and Donnacha -- are well represented.