Three big weekend races, from New York through Kentucky to California, will put many of the final touches on the May 5 Kentucky Derby picture.
After Saturday's Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, Blue Grass at Keeneland and Santa Anita Derby, only the Arkansas Derby will be left among the major preps for the Run for the Roses.
Each of those three venues also has major auditions for the May 4 Kentucky Oaks.
Outside the 3-year-old division, the Grade I Carter at Aqueduct and the Grade I Madison for fillies and mares at Keeneland head a strong schedule of sprint stakes. Add a smattering of graded stakes on the grass and it's a substantial weekend of Thoroughbred action.
The autumn Championships continue in Australia although Winx's next appearance is a week in the future.
We appear here and now with:
The Road to the Roses
Saturday's $1 million Grade I Santa Anita Derby was expected to feature a rematch of last month's thrilling San Felipe, where Bolt d'Oro and McKinzie fought it out to a finish eventually decided in the stewards' room. Instead, trainer Bob Baffert has temporarily sidelined McKinzie and substituted the exciting but lightly raced Justify.
Justify makes just his third career start and, with no previous stakes experience and no Kentucky Derby qualifying points, would have to finish first or second Saturday to qualify for the Run for the Roses should more than 20 be entered. Nonetheless, the colt was installed as the 4-5 morning-line favorite with Bolt d'Oro at 6-5. Instilled Regard, the only other horse in the field likely to qualify for the Run for the Roses, was cursed with the inside gate.
In New York:
The heavy international flavor of his year's Kentucky Derby preparations continues with Enticed installed as the 6-5 morning-line favorite for Saturday's $1 million Grade II Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. The Medaglia d'Oro colt, trained in the United States by Kiaran McLaughlin but owned by Godolphin Racing, based in Dubai, won the Grade I Hopeful at Saratoga last year followed that with a victory in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club.
Although the Wood is a Grade II, McLaughlin said it's an important step toward Louisville, "especially for a stallion prospect. Only one horse wins the Derby and 19 are hot and dirty," he said. "So this is a very important race on Saturday."
Also in the Wood we find Firenze Fire, winner of last year's Grade I Champagne at Belmont Park, who narrowly missed in the Grade III Withers in February, then finished fourth in the Gotham; Vino Rosso, fourth in the Tampa Bay Derby; trainer Bob Baffert's cross-country shipper Restoring Hope; Gotham runner-up Old Time Revival and a bunch of others.
Last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Winner Good Magic is the 2-1 morning-line favorite in a congested field of 15 entered for Saturday's $1 million Grade II Toyota Blue Grass as Keeneland returns for its short but precious spring season. Good Magic comes off an even third-place finish in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park in his most recent start. The Blue Grass field also includes Tampa Bay Derby winner Quip and Flameaway, who was second in that race.
Quip, owned by China Horse Club, WinStar Farm and SF Racing, was based at Keeneland most of last year before wintering in southern climes and trainer Rodolphe Brisset says it's "a big advantage that he has spent so much time at Keeneland ... We know he likes the track. Since we came back, he knows he is in familiar surroundings."
Six are entered for Saturday's $300,000 Grade II Gazelle at Aqueduct. Midnight Disguise is the morning-line favorite after going undefeated in her first three starts, including a last-out victory in the Beyond the Wire Stakes at Laurel Park. But the rest of the field is plenty competitive.
After Midnight Disguise, Smokinpaddylassie, Sara Street, Mo Shopping are all bunched at low odds on the morning line with only Virginia Key offering any promise of a big return.
Monomoy Girl is the 4-5 morning-line favorite in a field of seven for Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Central Bank Ashland at Keeneland. Monomoy Girl, trained by Brad Cox, has won four of five career starts with her lone loss a second place finish, beaten a neck, in the Grade II Golden Rod at Churchill Downs in November. In her only previous start as a 3-year-olds, she won the Grade II Rachel Alexandra at Fair Grounds on Feb. 17.
Eskimo Kisses joins the Ashland field off a runner-up finish in the Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks. The other graded stakes winners in the talented field are Patrona Margarita and Andina Del Sur.
A field of nine will contest Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Santa Anita Oaks with Midnight Bisou the heavy favorite after winning the Santa Ysable at 1-5 odds. The second- and third-place finishers from that race return -- Thirteen Squared and Spring Lily.
This is the hottest action outside the Triple Crown races this weekend. The lineup:
Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Carter at Aqueduct; Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Bay Shore for 3-year-olds, also at Aqueduct; Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Commonwealth at Keeneland; and Sunday's $150,000 Grade III Beaumont, also at Keeneland.
Filly & Mare Sprint
The distaffers get in on the sprint action, too. That schedule:
Friday's $150,000 Grade III Distaff at Aqueduct; Saturday's $300,000 Grade I Madison at Keeneland and Saturday's $150,000 Carousel at Oaklawn.
FRIDAY $150,000 Grade III Transylvania Stakes for 3-year olds at Keeneland may depend on the weather, with -- GASP! -- snow in the offing. Maybe things will be better by Sunday for the $200,000 Grade II Appalachian. Also in this division are Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Providencia for 3-year-olds at Santa Anita and Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Royal Heroine for fillies and mares at Santa Anita.
Turf sprinters will hope for good conditions for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Shakertown at Keeneland.
On the international front:
A relatively quiet week after the Dubai World Cup still finds action in Australia. Saturday's Group 1 Doncaster Mile at Royal Randwick is a Breeders' Cup Challenge race offering a guaranteed spot in the Mile this November at Churchill Downs.