WEEKEND STAKES: WHERE TO WATCH brought to you by KBC Horse Supplies

by | 11.17.2010 | 12:47am

Two surefire signs of spring—Oaklawn Park's Racing Festival of the South and Keeneland's opening day–kick off the weekend stakes action Friday afternoon, and while the Fantasy at Oaklawn and Transylvania at Keeneland are well worth watching, it's the big Kentucky Derby preps that will get most of the attention one day later. Those two Grade 1 races—the Wood Memorial from Aqueduct and Santa Anita Derby from Santa Anita Park—will be televised on NBC Sports, which will broadcast the Kentucky Derby four weeks from this Saturday on May 1. The Grade 2 Illinois Derby also will be contested on Saturday at Hawthorne, and that race has attracted an interesting field of horses hoping to enter the Kentucky Derby picture.

First things first. The Grade 2 Fantasy for 3-year-old fillies has lured Blind Luck from her California base following a disappointing third-place finish behind winner Crisp in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks on Santa Anita's synthetic Pro-Ride surface. The multiple Grade 1 winner will be back on dirt for the first time since breaking her maiden by 13 1/4 lengths at Calder last June. The daughter of Pollard's Vision is trained by Jerry Hollendorfer and will be ridden again by Rafael Bejarano. The Fantasy goes at 6:47 p.m. (all times Eastern).

The Transylvania, a Grade 3 turf event for 3-year-olds scheduled to be run at 5:05 p.m., is the marquee event of Keeneland's 10-race opening day program that starts with a 1:05 p.m. post. The 1 1/16-mile event should be a good proving ground for the unbeaten Christophe Clement-trained Nordic Truce, who comes off a minor stakes win on the Gulfstream Park turf after breaking his maiden on grass at Calder.

Onto the Derby preps. All eyes will be on Eskendereya in the Wood, which has a scheduled post time of 5:12 p.m. The Todd Pletcher-trained colt by Giant's Causeway was so impressive winning the Grade 2 Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes in front-running fashion that he moved to the top of many Derby Top 10 lists. He probably needs a top three finish in the $500,000 Wood to earn enough in graded stakes purses to crack the top 20 and ensure a spot in the starting gate at Churchill Downs. He'll have only five opponents in the nine-furlong Wood, which has been the most productive final prep over the last 40 years in terms of supplying Kentucky Derby winners. Foremost among those taking on the likely heavy favorite is Grade 3 Gotham Stakes winner Awesome Act. A third contender is Schoolyard Dreams, a close second to Odysseus in the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby.

Lookin At Lucky, the 2009 2-year-old male champion, doesn't need any more graded stakes earnings to make the Derby's starting field, but Bob Baffert would like to see a strong effort from the Smart Strike colt in the Santa Anita Derby as the trainer anticipates going for his fourth victory in the Kentucky Derby next month. The Santa Anita Derby has several other contenders, including Sidney's Candy, wire to wire winner of the recent Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes, along with two very talented graded stakes-winning California-breds, Caracortado and Alphie's Bet. Post time is 5:36 p.m.

The Wood and Santa Anita Derby are both supported by terrific undercards with multiple graded stakes, including Aqueduct's Grade 1 Carter Handicap, featuring the crack sprinter Munnings.

The Illinois Derby has attracted horses from all over the country hoping to punch their ticket to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. From Louisiana comes Backtalk, a speedster from the Tom Amoss barn, from California come American Lion and Dave in Dixie, who ran sub-par races in the San Felipe against Sidney's Candy, and from New York comes Yawanna Twist, second to Awesome Act in the Gotham. This figures to be an intriguing race for 3-year-olds. Post time is 5:37 p.m.

There are plenty of other outstanding races on Saturday, including the Grade 1 Central Bank Ashland Stakes, an important Kentucky Oaks prep where 2009 2-year-old filly champion She Be Wild tries to get back on the winning track after a disappointing run at Gulfstream Park in her only 2010 start. Local favorite Win Willy headlines the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap.

Spring is in the air, and the racing season is beginning to heat up all around the country.

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