It’s common for Kentucky Derby contenders to have at least three graded stakes preps before the run for the roses. This weekend, many 3-year-olds will be embarking on their first true step toward Kentucky, hoping to prove themselves worthy of the Derby trail, and a position in the starting gates on the first Saturday in May. This Saturday features at least five prep races, one for each grade, which will be showcasing the some of the best in the 3-year-old division. Since the Kentucky Derby selects its contenders based on the horse’s earnings, the larger purses offered in these preps are all the more important for those youngsters with Derby dreams to accrue.
Starting with the highest-graded stakes this weekend, Santa Anita will welcome the Eclipse-winning filly Stardom Bound in her 3-year-old debut in the Grade I Las Virgenes. Affectionately referred to as “Zenyatta Junior” by Mike Smith, the jockey of both talented females, Stardom Bound was explosive in her 2-year-old season, boasting a running style that mirrored the dominating Zenyatta’s come-from-behind kick. Though the filly has yet to race on dirt, Stardom Bound has proven herself to be more dominating than just about any other male in her division. Her performance in the Grade I Las Virgenes will show how she’s come out of last season; the gray filly has not raced since her victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. If she comes out of this race in good order, one would hope Stardom Bound’s next race will be on dirt if she plans on being a contender in Kentucky, whether be in the Derby or the Oaks.
Santa Anita will also be showcasing the 3-year-old debut of Pioneerof the Nile in the Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes. Winner of the Grade I Cashcall Futurity by a nose, Pioneerof the Nile will be facing the same horse that looked him in the eye to the wire, I Want Revenge. The Robert B. Lewis Stakes will serve as a rematch for these two horses, as well as welcoming a few other familiar faces, like Bittel Road, who finished 4th in the Cashcall, and Mark S the Cooler, who finished 7th in the same race. New to the graded stakes scene is Shafted, a horse who impressed with his winning turn of foot in an allowance on January 1st at Santa Anita. And then there’s the green Brother Keith, whose two races consisted of breaking his maiden, and then finishing fourth in the San Rafael Stakes, where he was rank coming out of the turn and somehow managed to pull himself together to beat the last horse in the field. While Pioneerof the Nile will undoubtedly go off as the favorite for trainer Bob Baffert, don’t count out Revenge for this race.
Over at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, the 3-year-olds are getting more street cred with this Grade III race over good ol’ fashioned dirt. No one in racing could forget last year’s thrilling Risen Star, where Pyro came from last to first in a matter of seconds to win his first start as a 3-year-old. The field for this year’s installment of the Risen Star boasts several promising colts, from Larry Jones’s Lecomte Stakes winner, Friesian Fire, to the runner-up in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, Giant Oak. In that Grade II event, Giant Oak stuck his head in front of Capt. Candyman Can, who went on to win last week’s Hutcheson Stakes. And then there’s Flying Pegasus, who finished second in his previous start, the Grade II Futurity at Belmont, where he bested Friesian Fire by over two lengths. Trainer Larry Jones has been high on Friesian Fire from the beginning, but the colt hadn’t been performing as well as a Derby contender should until winning the Lecomte on January 10th. Maybe Friesian Fire has found his stride, or maybe he just got lucky in his last start; whatever the case, I’m not ready to call him “for real” just yet. With that said, I’m also not ready to give up on Indygo Mountain yet, who finished 6th in the Lecomte after a haywire schedule change and a bruised foot stifled his mojo. But this is the big leagues now, and Indygo Mountain must finish within in the top three if he wants to be taken seriously; the Lecomte was his first stakes attempt in three lifetime starts.
Speaking of horses who need a step up in class to be taken seriously, the 3-race sizzler Haynesfield will be taking on five challengers in the Whirlaway Stakes at Aqueduct on Saturday. While the Whirlaway is an ungraded race, it has seen such rising stars as the Preakness-winning Prairie Bayou (1994), and is a prep for the Gotham Stakes, a legitimate graded prep for the Derby. Trained by Steve Asmussen, Haynesfield won the Count Fleet Stakes on January 3rd in his most recent start. The only other stakes winner in the field is Peace Town, who won the Maryland Juvenile Championship Stakes in his last start. And watch out for Hehasnosay, who will be trying to make the Whirlaway his third win in a row.
Other races to keep in mind this Saturday are the Grade III Silverbulletday Stakes at Fair Grounds, where the Larry Jones trainee, Just Jenda, and the talented Four Gifts will meet in a field of eight 3-year-old fillies in a prep for the Fair Grounds Oaks. This will be the third time Just Jenda and Four Gifts will be up against each other, and hopefully both fillies will get a clean trip to prove which is the better of the two. Also be sure to catch Monba and Yankee Bravo’s return to the track in the Grade III Thunder Road Handicap at Santa Anita, and the Grade II Strub Stakes featuring Cowboy Cal and Nownownow.
And in preparation of the plethora of Saturday races, be sure to catch the new reality show Jockeys on Animal Planet debuting Friday at 9pm ET. Not only will the show regularly feature top riders like Mike Smith, Aaron Gryder, and Alex Solis, but also behind-the-scenes looks at our favorite equine athletes.
The Grade III Silverbulletday Stakes will post at approximately 3:55pm CT and will be aired on HRTV.
The Grade III Risen Start Stakes will be broadcast on HRTV at approximately 4:29pm CT.
The $100,000 Whirlaway Stakes will be aired on both HRTV and TVG. Estimated post time is 3:49pm ET.
The Grade I Las Virgenes Stakes will be aired on HRTV at approximately 3:05pm PT.
The Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes will be aired on HRTV at approximately 4:07pm PT.