The $1.25 million Charles Town Classic and the Illinois Derby highlight weekend Thoroughbred racing while Keeneland, Santa Anita and Woodbine all offer graded stakes.
At Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Derby field is slowly assembling with expectations of a stirring 143rd edition of the Run for the Roses.
On the international front, anticipation also is high as the European flat racing season gears up and Hong Kong prepares for its coming slate of springtime international Group 1 races.
No more anticipation here. We're off and running with:
The Classic Division
Imperative and Stanford, the 1-2 finishers in the $400,000 Poseidon Handicap on Pegasus World Cup Day, are the morning-line favorites for Saturday's $1.25 million Grade II Charles Town Classic in West Virginia.
Stanford, who won this last year, drew the rail for the 9-furlongs, three-turns event and is the oddsmaker's 8-5 morning-line pick after winning his last start at Tampa Bay Downs. Imperative, who drew No. 5 in the eight-horse field, finished last of nine in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap in his last outing and has been less than consistent. He was fourth in last year's Classic. Others who merit a look include War Story, Matt King Cole and Sunny Ridge.
Can't make it to West Virginia for the race? Catch the action on Horse Racing Radio Network (www.horseracingradio.net). Thoughts on the potential outcome? That would be analyst Jude Feld (www.popejude.com).
Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Californian at Santa Anita has six contenders to go 9 furlongs. Collected, a City Zip colt, was an easy winner for trainer Bob Baffert in the Santana Mile three weeks ago -- his first start since a 10th-place finish in the Preakness. Before that, he won the Grade III Lexington at Keeneland and the $400,000 Sunland Park Festival of Racing Stakes. Baffert also saddles Cupid, who won the Grade II Indiana Derby and Grade II West Virginia Derby. The Tapit colt has not raced since finishing eighth in the Grade II Pennsylvania Derby last September.
Trainer Carla Gaines brings Texas Ryano off the turf for the Californian in an interesting experiment. Follow Me Crev exits a third-place showing -- well behind Shaman Ghost and Midnight Storm -- in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap.
The Triple Crown Races
Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Illinois Derby, restored after last year's mothballing, is not part of the official Churchill Downs "Road to the Kentucky Derby" so Hawthorne Race Course management has taken a different path to retain its luster and relevance, positioning the race to collect some promising 3-year-olds for whom the timing didn't click for Louisville and moving it to an evening time slot. This is a race to watch for Preakness Stakes candidates.
Hawthorne's plan garnered a very credible seven-horse field. Hedge Fund, a Super Saver colt trained by Todd Pletcher, comes to the race after finishing third in the Grade III Sunland Park Derby in New Mexico, where he made all the early pace and trailed only Hence and Conquest Mo Money at the end.
It's Your Nickel won the John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park and finished sixth in the Grade I Blue Grass at Keeneland just two weeks ago. Hollywood Handsome was fourth in the Grade II Louisiana Derby, just 3 lengths back of Girvin, who tops the Kentucky Derby points list. The others have more to prove but significant upside potential.
And speaking of Preakness contenders, Saturday's $125,000 Federico Tessio Stakes at Laurel Park is a main local prep for that race. The field of five includes Twisted Tom and O Dionysus, who were first and second, a nose apart, in the Private Terms Stakes over the same track in their last race. Action Everyday won his first two starts in Florida, then finished fourth in the Grade III Gotham at Aqueduct. Carradine, a cleverly named son of Grasshopper, steps up in class after showing promise in New York.
On the green course:
Saturday's $100,000 Woodhaven Stakes for 3-year-olds at Aqueduct drew a field of seven but two of those are entered for "main track only." In the main body of the field, Shamsaan is intriguing. The Shadwell homebred, a son of Bernardini out of a Dynaformer mare, dominated an off-the-turf event at Gulfstream Park in December. But when trainer Kiaran McLaughlin returned him in the Grade III Holy Bull on Feb. 4, he missed the break, trailed badly and was pulled up. McLaughlin has been working him on both turf and dirt. Frostmourne makes his first start since a nice win in the 1-mile Awad Stakes over the Bemont Park greensward way back in October. Royal by Nature was second in that event and also makes his 3-year-old debut.
Fans of turf marathons are in luck with the $250,000 Grade II Dixiana Elkhorn at Keeneland and the $100,000 Grade III San Juan Capistrano at Santa Anita both slated for Saturday.
The Elkhorn has a field of 11 to tackle 1 1/2 miles. The bunch includes graded stakes winners Interpol, Danish Dynaformer, Red Rifle, Itsinthepost, Bigger Picture, Bullards Alley, Taghleeb, Charming Kitten and Chocolate Ride. That's nine of the 11 -- a nice handicapping puzzle indeed.
Six signed on for the 1 3/4-miles San Juan Capistrano. Syntax finished second in the Grade II San Luis Rey in his last outing. Otherwise, this is not a particularly distinguished bunch, including two coming out of claiming races -- one who was taken for $12,500. Perhaps you, too, can afford to buy a graded stakes starter.
The speedballs roll on the Woodbine all-weather course this weekend in Saturday's $100,000 (Canadian) Woodstock Stakes for 3-year-olds and Sunday's $125,000 (Canadian) Grade III Whimsical Stakes for 4-year-olds and up. Both are at 6 furlongs.
The fall season down under is winding down. Saturday's Group 1 feature is the Schweppes Sydney Cup at Royal Randwick -- a 3,200-meters trek that includes the likes of Who Shot Thebarman, Libran and Tally in an overflow field. Fourteen will go in this.
Runners from Japan, France and Australia are in their final training regimen to take on some of Hong Kong's best in the Group 1 Audemars Piguet QE II Cup at Sha Tin on April 30. Defending champion Werther, the reigning Hong Kong Horse of the Year, is undefeated at the 2,000 meters over the Sha Tin course and is back for another go. A rising local star, Pakistan Star, needs just to put things together just a bit more to move into the top echelon. Secret Weapon, Designs On Rome and Blazing Speed round out a powerhouse Hong Kong contingent. Mubtaahij, who has been oh-so-close oh-so-often on the dirt, was to have given the turf a try here but was withdrawn this week by trainer Mike de Kock. Neorealism, a late-bloomer, represents Japan. The United States, bred in Ireland, represents Australia. Diction, a locally owned Lawman colt, represents France.
The AP QE II starts a run of four international Group 1 events at Sha Tin as the Hong Kong season heads to its finale.
An early peek at the English Classics is available on Saturday at Newbury. Ten Classic hopefuls are on trial in the JLT Greenham Stakes for 3-year-old colts and the Dubai Duty Free Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, both over Newbury's seven-furlong straight course. The Greenham has been an excellent pointer to future champions, with Frankel, Kingman and Muhaarar victorious in recent years.
Saturday's Newbury program also includes the Group 3 Dubai Duty Free Finest Surprise Stakes featuring Midterm, a Galileo colt whose 3-year-old campaign promised brilliance but was interrupted by injury. "Newbury looks a nice starting point and hopefully he has a clear run this year," said Lord Grimthorpe, racing manager to Midterm's owner, Khalid Abdullah.