Three graded stakes races for 3-year-olds highlight the first weekend in March. In New York, the Gotham Stakes won’t star any standouts on the Derby trail, but you never know what’s going to be produced in the building weeks to the first Saturday in May. In California, Big Cap Day also marks the running of the Santa Anita Oaks, where filly star Blind Luck will try to win her third Grade I race in a row. The Sham Stakes, which was rescheduled after heavy rains forced Santa Anita Park to again cancel their race card, will feature eight of the original ten starters and will be run this Saturday (but there is a 70% chance of rain in Arcadia for Saturday, so don’t hold your breath about the race going off without a hitch). While the Derby picture still seems to be coming together a bit slowly, these graded stakes will give fringe horses the change they need to get all the closer to smelling roses.
The Grade III Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct shot a colt with tepid promise to superstardom last year in I Want Revenge, but this year’s Gotham doesn’t hold any hopefuls with quite so much smoldering ability. This year, one of the top contenders will be the front-running Wow Wow Wow, trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas. Lukas is no stranger to the Kentucky Derby trail; he has, in fact, won four of them-but he has never won a Gotham in ten tries. However, he may get his best chance yet to clench this elusive race after a soft field was drawn for the $250,000 test. Wow Wow Wow will be facing nine rivals and will break from the outside post. His biggest challenge could be from Peppi Knows, who most recently won the Whirlaway Stakes after the highly-favored Eightyfiveinafifty blew the first turn and hot-footed it back to the barn. The first three finishers of the Whirlaway are on board for the Gotham, as well as European shipper Awesome Act, the runner-up in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Santa Anita.
Over in California, Blind Luck will be looking to collect another Grade I victory in the Santa Anita Oaks, and she should have a good chance to do so-the seven challengers who are scheduled to face her don’t have much to show for themselves. Their best tactic to defeat the salty filly is to kill the pace, which almost defeated the late-closing Blind Luck in her last race, the Las Virgenes, which she won only by the skin of her teeth over Evening Jewel. One of her biggest rivals in the Oaks could be Crisp, who took the Grade III Santa Ysabel, but finished fourth in the Las Virgenes. Crisp will be sharpened up with blinkers for the Santa Anita Oaks. Cozi Rosie is in at a good price, and might be a good sleeper for this race; she has won her last two races, both of which were run at the 1 1/8-mile distance like the Oaks. Blind Luck may use the Oaks as a prep for the Santa Anita Derby against males. If she runs huge, we may be in for an interesting showdown with the undefeated Caracortado in April.
Off the Derby trail, the big one to watch this weekend is the Grade I $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap. This year’s race is much softer than last year’s star-studded field, but may see history happen. A female horse has never won the Big Cap, but this year, the standout in the full field of 14 contenders is just that-a five-year-old mare named St Trinians. After soundly defeating the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic winner Life is Sweet in the Grade II Santa Maria Handicap this February, St Trinians’s trainer said they would send her to face Zenyatta in the Santa Margarita next time. Since that breakout victory, however, St Trinians has been pointed against the boys instead. The mare has won all four of her starts in the U.S., and won three times against males in Europe over all-weather tracks. A victory in the Santa Anita Handicap would catapult St Trinians’s status to the top tier of America’s older horse standings, fleshing out a division that lost many to retirements at the end of last season. Standing in history’s way is a gallery of stakes winners, including Loup Breton, Neko Bay, Misremembered, Dakota Phone, Jeranimo, Mast Track, and Marsh Side. But can these spotty winners touch the class of St Trinians’s 4-race win-streak? Considering how the females are currently storming the sport of horse racing, I think these boys will have to step up to her level if they want to keep up.