Just a week before the big day at Churchill Downs, the national stakes schedule is pretty light with four Grade 3s on tap for Saturday, including the traditional spring/summer Churchill opening stakes, the Derby Trial, which will be run under the lights with an approximate post of 9:39 e.d.t. Though the Derby Trial has generally fallen from favor as a Derby prep, its graded status and $200,000 purse makes the race attractive to many 3-year-olds with other targets in mind. Even a winning performance in this mile test probably wouldn't be enough to convince their connections to look at the Kentucky Derby as a viable option, but there are a couple entries in the 11-horse field that have showed considerable talent. The probable favorite, Paynter, part of the Bob Baffert contingent that has taken up residence at the Downs, is coming off a fourth-place finish in the G1 Santa Anita Derby. Bourbon Courage, two-for-two at the Fair Grounds, is making his stakes debut.
Keeneland closes its spring meet Friday with the running of the G2 Elkhorn, a 1 ½-mile turf marathon for older runners. Simmard, Newsdad, and Musketier, top three finishers from the Feb. 12 Mac Diarmida (G2) will face each other again here. Newsdad and Simmard both come out of the G2 Pan American, where Newsdad was the victor by 2 ¼ lengths over Simmard.
Hollywood Park's initial graded stakes of the meet is the G3 Inglewood Handicap, carded as the 3rd race Friday. Just four others are expected to take on 2011 champion older male, Acclamation, who makes his 2012 bow here. The phenom Cal-bred carries a high weight of 124 lbs., nine to 12 lbs. more than his rivals, who are Haimish Hy, Utopian, Smug, and Holiday Road. Acclamation ended his campaign last year with a five-race win streak, all in Grade 1 or 2 stakes, and seemed Breeders' Cup-bound before a bruised foot derailed those plans.
Belmont also begins a new season this week; the opening weekend stakes on Saturday is the G3 Westchester, which has drawn a field of seven including To Honor and Serve, one of last year's top 3-year-olds. Following a 7th-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic, just 3 ½ lengths behind the winner, the Bill Mott pupil captured the G1 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct. After a five-month hiatus, the son of Bernardini is back to the races. Also expected to start are last-out winners Boys At Toscanova, Marilyn's Guy, and Bold Deed.
Like the Derby Trial and Westchester, all the rest of the weekend graded stakes will be run at the mile distance—Lone Star's Texas Mile, the San Francisco Mile at Golden Gate, and, on Sunday at Hollywood, the Wilshire Handicap. The latter two are turf contests. Southern California invader Canonize, a two-time winner this year over the dirt track at Santa Anita, will be probable betting choice in the Texas Mile. With only synthetic options available in California, trainer Ron Ellis went in search of races on natural dirt that Canonize seems to prefer. Among those he faces are Eoin Harty-trained Endorsement, and the ultra-consistent Coyote Legend.
Mike Smith has been tapped to ride Jeranimo in the San Francisco Mile, which drew a field of 11 probable starters. Jeranimo ended his 2011 campaign with a win in the G2 Citation Nov. 26. In two starts this season, he's been runner-up in the G2 San Gabriel and fourth in the G1 Kilroe.
Nereid, who dead-heated for the win in last July's G1 American Oaks, may be gearing up for another go at that race, beginning with Sunday's G3 Wilshire Handicap. Following her effort in the American Oaks, the John Shirreffs charge ran back-to-back thirds in the Del Mar Oaks and Keeneland's Queen Elizabeth II Cup, both Grade 1. The Wilshire has also lured Up In Time and Wild Mia, second and third in Santa Anita's G2 Buena Vista Handicap.
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