As impressive as Brethren and Anthony's Cross were last weekend, they're on the back burner for now while we turn our attentions toward this week's Derby preps and the emergence of more candidates hoping for one of those coveted slots in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. On Saturday, we'll see the Grade 2 Risen Star at the Fair Grounds, along with the G3 Rachel Alexandra, for fillies who may be looking toward the Kentucky Oaks. On Sunday, Santa Anita runs the G2 San Vicente, and on Monday, the G3 Southwest will take place at Oaklawn Park.
Starting with the 1 1/16-mile Risen Star, a contentious field of 10 will go postward, led by Rogue Romance. This will be no walk in the park for the son of Smarty Jones; six of his competitors have been assigned odds of less than 10-1. Rogue Romance took down last October's G3 Bourbon before getting the show dough in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, finishing well behind Uncle Mo. The Risen Star also has attracted Pants On Fire, who narrowly missed in the G3 LeComte, Decisive Moment, recent winner of the Jean Lafitte at Delta Downs, and Mucho Macho Man, who exits the G3 Holy Bull, where he finished fourth. Santiva also is not without a chance here; he capped off his 2010 campaign with a win in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club.
The two other graded stakes at Fair Grounds sandwiched between the Rachel Alexandra and Risen Star are both Grade 3s for older horses. The Mineshaft Handicap (1 1/16 miles on dirt) will be followed by the Fair Grounds Handicap (1 1/8 miles on turf). Apart will try to return to his winning ways in the Mineshaft; his three straight wins in 2010 were followed by losses in the G1 Clark Handicap and in his 2011 debut in the Louisiana Handicap. He faces eight others, including Demarcation, who also ran in the Clark, finishing fourth, but disqualified to last for interference.
Loup Breton, now in the care of Todd Pletcher, leads a bulky field of 12 in the Fair Grounds Handicap. Previously trained by Julio Canani in California, Loup Breton hasn't been on the track since running seventh in Del Mar's G1 Eddie Read Handicap. Also entered are the top three finishers from the G3 Col. Bradley Handicap, run here Jan. 11—Gran Estreno, Dubious Miss and Joinem.
Older horses also are in the spotlight on Saturday at Santa Anita. A trio of turf routers has been assigned high weight of 123 lbs. against 10 others in the G2 San Luis Obispo. Bourbon Bay and Champ Pegasus have had two meetings and each have a win against the other; Bourbon Bay most recently came away with the G2 San Marcos, and Champ Pegasus was the best in the G1 Clement Hirsch. Haimish Hy, the other high-weight, captured the G1 Hollywood Derby last November.
Smiling Tiger should be favored over Captain Cherokee in the G2 San Carlos (7 furlongs on dirt), even though he was beaten by the latter in their recent meeting, the G2 Palos Verdes. Smiling Tiger has been running well and consistently in graded stakes company.
Three other graded stakes take place on Saturday—Laurel Park will run the G2 Barbara Fritchie Handicap, and Gulfstream Park has the G2 Mac Diarmida and the G3 Sabin on tap. Bill Mott's Al Khali will challenge a dozen others in the 1 3/8-miles Mac Diarmida, the first graded distance race of the meet. The Sabin, for females going a mile on dirt, has eight expected starters. Amen Hallelujah seeks to atone for her loss in the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint, where she finished fifth as the betting choice.
Sunday's key race, though not necessarily a Derby prep due to its sprint distance of 7 furlongs, is the G2 San Vicente at Santa Anita which has drawn nine entrants. We're all waiting to see how The Factor can possibly top his last performance; it was only a maiden win, but it was done in the ridiculous time of 1:06.98 (for 6 furlongs) on the just-installed dirt track on Santa Anita's opening day. The Bob Baffert trainee will face Hollywood Prevue winner Premier Pegasus, San Pedro victor Indian Winter, as well as his own stablemate, Sinai, among others.
Gulfstream's Sunday feature is the G3 The Very One, for older females. The 1 3/8-mile turf test has drawn a half-dozen, including Belle Watling, a Chilean phenom who comes here with a 10-race win streak. Now with Patrick Biancone, it will be interesting to see how the 5-year-old daughter of Dushyantor can perform against the likes of Changing Skies or Keertana.
Special holiday racing takes place at various tracks across the country, including Oaklawn Park, Laurel Park, and Santa Anita, which will all host graded stakes. Oaklawn's Southwest is not usually a Derby prep in itself, but a stepping stone to the G1 Arkansas Derby. Among those expected to start is J P's Gusto, who has been shifted from his Southern California base with David Hofmans, to Joe Petalino's barn in Arkansas. J P's Gusto is making his 3-year-old debut here; he won four stakes races in his juvenile season.
Laurel Park will run the G2 General George Handicap, for 3-year-olds and up, 7 furlongs on dirt, while Santa Anita will run a pair of turf stakes for females—the G2 Buena Vista Handicap is a one mile contest for older distaffers, and the G3 La Habra is for 3-year-olds, going the about distance of 6 ½ furlongs down the hillside course.
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