After last weekend’s upsets in two of the three stakes races for Kentucky Derby hopefuls, the picture has become more clouded than ever for who will actually make it to Louisville in one piece by May. Tapizar is now sidelined from the Road to the Roses after a bone chip was found in his knee after his disastrous performance in the Robert B. Lewis, and Comma to the Top couldn’t keep hold of his lead and placed fourth in the El Camino Real Derby. (It was around this time that the news broke that Boys at Tosconova has been sent to a farm and will miss the Derby, as well.) Brethren, however, stepped up in a big way with his runaway victory in the Grade III Sam F. Davis, his first stakes test, and is now firmly on his way to becoming the next big thing. This three-day weekend will feature three prominent preps for males and one for fillies that will unload a whole new arsenal on the Derby scene; look for even more newcomers to blow apart the division in the Risen Star, the San Vicente, and the Southwest Stakes.
The newly-minted Rachel Alexandra Stakes at Fair Grounds this Saturday will feature the star 3-year-old in training, Kathmanblu. A prep for the Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks, the Rachel Alexandra Stakes will contest over 1 1/16-miles and feature a field of seven young fillies, including the winner of the Silverbulletday Stakes, Bouquet Booth. The race is essentially setting up to be a race between these two challengers, as the rest of the field hasn’t half the resume; last time out, Kathmanblu proved her versatility by winning the Sweetest Chant Stakes over the turf at Gulfstream; before that, she was the 8 ½-length winner of the Grade II Goldenrod Stakes at Churchill Downs. Bouquet Booth gets street cred just from having a win over the Fair Grounds track; she is on a 3-race win streak after breaking her maiden at Keeneland and then going on to take the $500,000 Delta Downs Princess Stakes. She has also never been out of the money in five starts. Gran Lioness, Inglorious, and Chloe Kate stand the biggest chance at upsetting the two favorites.
Also Saturday is the Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds. A field of ten have signed on to contest the 1 1/16-mile race for a purse of $300,000. Hometown hero Machen will be making his stakes debut here, and he will have plenty to test him with the arrival of out-of-towners Rogue Romance and Santiva. Rogue Romance finished a distant third behind Uncle Mo and Boys at Tosconova in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in his last start, but could be vulnerable from the long layoff. Pants on Fire has an advantage with a race over this track, finishing second in the Grade III Lecomte Stakes behind Wilkinson last time out. Santiva was last seen winning the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs, defeating a couple stakes horses in the process. Then there’s the winner of the Jean Laffitte at Delta Downs and runner-up in the Delta Jackpot; Decisive Moment has the credentials to add another stakes to his record. Battle-tested Mucho Macho Man is also in for another try at stakes glory, but he will have to step it up if he wants to finish in the money in this spot.
Sunday at Santa Anita will feature the $150,000 San Vicente Stakes, and the stakes debut of track record-holder The Factor. Battling foot issues since that scorching maiden victory, the Bob Baffert-trainee will be guided by the talented hand of Martin Garcia this time out. The Factor will need all the help he can get, because the star of the field will be a colt named Premier Pegasus. Undefeated in three starts and winner of the Hollywood Prevue and Jack Goodman Stakes, the bay son of Fusaichi Pegasus will be in his wheelhouse for distance in his first start of 2011, but has never run over traditional dirt before. Should he take to the dirt and stick to the lead like he likes, Premier Pegasus could be something special. The big question will be how The Factor settles, and what will happen should these two get into a speed duel over the first half of the race. Other probables for the San Vicente include the Steve Asmussen-trainee City Cool, and Indian Winter, who is trained by Jerry Hollendorfer.
Monday will be the start of Oaklawn Park’s 3-year-old racing series, as the Southwest Stakes goes to post on Presidents’ Day. Oaklawn Park was forced to cancel eight days of racing at the beginning of the meet thanks to snow and ice, so it’s refreshing to see this symbol of spring return. As of this writing, the entries for the Southwest had yet to be drawn, but the clear star is J P’s Gusto, a transplant from California who will be making his first start at Oaklawn. Under the guidance of a new trainer, J P’s Gusto will be rerouted on board the Kentucky Derby trail. While in California, he racked up four stakes victories in a row as a juvenile, including the Grade I Del Mar Futurity, before finishing second in the Grade I Norfolk to Jaycito. In his only start on dirt, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, J P’s Gusto finished 6th, but he improved to a fast-closing second in his next and most recent start, the Grade I Cashcall Futurity, which was won by Comma to the Top. As Oaklawn’s 3-year-old male division is pretty wide-open at this point, J P’s Gusto stands every chance of seizing top honors by winning the Southwest. His biggest threat could come from two colts who have already won over the course: Elite Alex, a late-blooming son of Afleet Alex, and Yankee Passion, a Larry Jones trainee who posted a bullet in his last work for the race.
Whatever happens this weekend, someone’s bankroll is about to be inflated, putting them one step closer to duking it out with division champ Uncle Mo come the first Saturday in May. And what about Mo? Look for his season debut three weeks from Saturday in either the Tampa Bay Derby or an overnight stakes race at Gulfstream. I wish I were joking. Stay tuned…
For race times and TV listings, please check the stakes schedule at NTRA.com.