While the Road to the Kentucky Derby points tally officially started last September, this weekend marks the first qualifying race for contenders as 3-year-olds.
Aqueduct's Grade 3 Jerome Stakes doesn't have a long history as a true Derby prep, but it does have a long history. The race dates back to 1866, making it one of the country's oldest stakes. Names like Bold Ruler, Kelso, and more recently Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus, have graced the Jerome winner's circle.
Saturday's edition is led by El Kabeir, a son of Scat Daddy who races for Zayat Stables and is trained by John Terranova II. The Florida bred is the only graded stakes winner in the field of nine, having won the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last out at Churchill Downs. El Kabeir's challengers include Nasa, a Pennsylvania-bred son of Derby/Preakness winner Smarty Jones who races for the same connections his sire did — owner Someday Farm and trainer John Servis.
Sophomores will be in the spotlight elsewhere this weekend. Three-year-olds hit the turf in the G3 Dania Beach Stakes at Gulfstream, and 3-year-old fillies go head-to-head in Gulfstream's G3 Old Hat Stakes and Santa Anita's G2 Santa Ynez. Santa Anita also hosts a pair of turf events for older runners with the G2 San Gabriel on Saturday and the Monrovia Stakes down the hill on Sunday.
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No luck for either squad in last week's bankroll competition. Let's see if things go a bit better this time around.
Xpressbet Handicapper: Dustin Fabian, Xpressbet.com
Jerome Stakes, Grade 3, Aqueduct, 1 Mile 70 Yards
New York's 'Road to the Triple Crown' kicks off in earnest with the Grade 3 Jerome, which drew a solid field of 9, including recent Grade 2 winner, #9 EL KABEIR. Generally, he's the type of horse I'd try to beat. He was beaten multiple lengths in both of his graded tries in the Empire State and is a frontrunner in a race loaded with speed. But he beat a nice group last time and is the only runner in the field with any positive graded stakes experience. To me, the most likely upsetter is #8 NASA. He's a Pennsylvania-bred son of Smarty Jones, owned by Someday Farm, trained by John Servis and won the Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes at Parx last out. He should benefit from the amount of speed signed on and with his pedigree, he should love two-turn racing.
The Play: $20 Win #8 Nasa; $10 Exacta Box #8 Nasa, #9 El Kabeir ($40 wagered total)
San Gabriel Stakes, Grade 2, Santa Anita, 1 1/8 Miles Turf
This is a really fun edition of the San Gabriel, with half of the field seemingly cutting back from marathon distances and the other half are milers trying to stretch an extra furlong. #9 TOM'S TRIBUTE went favored last time out in the Grade 2 Seabiscuit Handicap at Del Mar, but he was outkicked after making the lead at the head of the lane. He's 1-for-1 at today's 9 furlong distance and should be in the mix. #2 BIG BANE THEORY faltered a bit late in the Seabiscuit, finishing 5th, but is 4-for-6 at Santa Anita and should rebound at a fair price. #3 DYNAMIC SKY is in great form right now and while this race is a short cuback in distance for him, I expect him to be flying late under Corey Nakatani.
The Play: $5 Exacta Box #2 Big Bane Theory, #3 Dynamic Sky, #9 Tom's Tribute ($30 wagered)
Monrovia Stakes, Grade 3, Santa Anita, 6 1/2 Furlongs Turf
One of my favorite things about playing the races at Santa Anita is their downhill turf course. Horses who have previously raced down the hill are at a big advantage and route horses cutting back in distance also seem to do quite will on it. #12 VELVET MESQUITE is at home on this course, having won 5-of-6 starts on the downwhill, but most of those came in allowance or state-bred races. I think we can beat her. #11 JUDY IN DISGUISE won a tough Del Mar allowance off a 13 month layoff and was a close-up 3rd in this last year. Joe Talamo, who apparently chose this one over #5 GENDER AGENDA, is once again in the irons.
The Play: $20 Win #11 Judy in Disguise; $5 Exacta #11 Judy in Disguise / #4 Heat Trap, #12 Velvet Mesquite ($30 wagered)
Paulick Report Handicapper: Scott Jagow, Editor-in-Chief
The question here is how much pressure will speedy favorite EL KABEIR see early as he breaks from the outside post. I'm guessing he'll have to work a bit, perhaps setting it up for someone to swoop in late. Trainer Rudy Rodriguez is off to a slow start at Aqueduct, but perhaps ACKERET (4-1) will get him going. His two victories have been of the stalk and pounce variety, and the step-up in distance from six furlongs to about a mile may suit.
The Play: $20 to win, #7 Ackeret, $5 exacta boxes, Ackeret with #9 El Kabeir, #8 Nasa ($40 total)
Dania Beach Stakes, Grade 3, Gulfstream Park, 7 1/2 Furlongs, Turf
Trainer Chad Brown is also off to a slow start at the current meet, but that's unlikely to last long. While only cutting back half a furlong, NIGHT PROWLER (4-1) is technically going from a route to a sprint, a category in which Brown has a phenomenal 62% strike rate with his last 21 starters. Javier Castellano, who was aboard for the Giant's Causeway colt's maiden breaker two back, gets the call. I also like STORMY WAYLLEN (8-1), who is a nose away from being 3-for-3 with trainer Wayne Catalano.
The play: $20 win, #9 Night Prowler, $10 to win, #2 Stormy Wayllen, $5 exacta box Night Prowler/Stormy Wayllen ($40 total)
In a great betting affair, I like a couple of runners who've shown an affinity for the tricky downhill turf course. VELVET MESQUITE (7-2) draws the outside post in a field of 12, but that's an advantage on this course with its early right hand turn. Mike Smith rides the 5-year-old mare, who has five wins from six starts over the course. In her five starts on the course, HEAT TRAP has hit the board every time, with two victories and two seconds.
The Play: $10 exacta box, #12 Velvet Mesquite, #4 Heat Trap ($20 total)
Where and when to catch this weekend's graded stakes:
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