Turf lovers get a treat with graded grass events on both coasts and Aqueduct has graded stakes for sprinters and filly and mare milers. Kentucky Oaks hopefuls get a workout at Santa Anita.
Here's what to watch:
The "Big Cap"
With Game On Dude headed for Dubai, Ultimate Eagle has been installed as the 5-2 morning-line favorite in a contentious field of 13 for Saturday's $750,000, Grade I Santa Anita Handicap, a 1 1/4-mile test for 4-year-olds and up.
Ultimate Eagle moved to the dirt track for the first time in the Feb. 4 Strub Stakes and responded with a 7 1/4-lengths victory â€“ the fifth win in his last six starts for trainer Michael Pender. A 4-year-old Mizzen Mast colt, Ultimate Eagle also won the Oak Tree Derby and the Hollywood Park Derby â€“ both on grass â€“ during that win skein.
Also in the entries is Setsuko, who lost to Game On Dude in a controversial stretch run in last year's Big Cap. Setsuko, a 5-year-old Pleasantly Perfect gelding, has had trouble finishing his races, winning only twice in 17 starts.
Bob Baffert, who opted to send Game On Dude to Dubai, still will be represented Saturday by Prayer For Relief, who accounted for last year's Iowa Derby, West Virginia Derby and Super Derby. However, Prayer For Relief finished third, well behind Ultimate Eagle, in the Strub in his last start.
The field also includes Uh Oh Bango, winner of the Grade II San Pasqual in his last start. Ron the Greek ships in after finishing second to Mucho Macho Man in the Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park in his last start. Twice the Appeal comes from Oaklawn Park, where he finished second in the Fifth Season Stakes and third in the Essex Handicap last month.
The Kentucky Derby trail winds through the Big Apple Saturday in the $400,000, Grade III Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, final local prep for the April 7 Wood Memorial. Topping the 13 entries is Hansen, the Breeders' Cup and Eclipse Award winner who suffered his first defeat in his last outing, finishing second to the now-injured Algorithms in the Holy Bull over a sloppy Gulfstream Park oval.
Dr. Kendall Hansen, who owns the gray colt, warned not to underestimate Hansen off the Holy Bull loss.
"We had some bad luck last time and people probably think we're beatable," Hansen said. "We were about 75 percent last time and were hoping for an easy spot, but we ran into a top horse in Algorithms." Now, he said, Hansen is "at about 85 or 90 percent. Obviously, we want to peak in May."
Hansen will start from the No. 12 gate with Ramon Dominguez assigned to get him out cleanly and over if he is to employ his usual pacesetting tactics.
Trainer Todd Pletcher's Derby aspirations took a major hit when Algorithms was hurt but he still has plenty of bullets in his bandolier. Pletcher will field two in the Gotham â€“ second-stringers who could move up with a good showing.
Dan and Shiela, who was a late-running fourth in the Grade III LeComte at Fairgrounds Jan. 21, is the more accomplished of the two. Raconteur remained a maiden after five starts last year but has won two straight at the Big A, the latter an optional claimer. "It might be a little bit of a tall order at the moment," admitted Pletcher assistant Mike McCarthy of Raconteur challenging Hansen.
Hansen hasn't scared anyone off and the expected large field also includes My Adonis, who was third in the Holy Bull, and Tiger Walk, third in the Grade 3 Withers at Aqueduct behind Alpha on Feb. 4.
My Adonis drew the rail and was listed as the second pick in the morning line at 5-1. Tiger Walk got the outside gate and was assigned 12-1 odds.
Canadian conditioner Mark Casse has several sophomores on the edge of Derby contention and one of them -- Stealcase, could move forward in the Gotham. The Lawyer Ron colt, owned by John Oxley, is making his first graded stakes effort after breaking his maiden in a route effort at Gulfstream Park, defeating Pletcher trainee Windsurfer.
"I think Hansen will be awful tough to beat going a mile and a sixteenth," Casse said. "That's OK. We're not concentrating necessarily on going a mile and a sixteenth. We're concentrating on trying to run a mile and a quarter. We hope to run well and need to pick up some graded earnings."
Turfway Park's Saturday card features the $75,000 John Battaglia Memorial, the final local prelim for the $500,000, Grade III Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes on March 24.
Mr. Prankster is seeking a sweep of the local 3-year-old preps after winning the Turfway Prevue in January and the WEBN Stakes last month for trainer Mike Maker. The It's No Joke colt has won half his six lifetime starts. Five rivals are trying for a breakthrough, including another Oxley-owned, Casse-trained runner, Dynamical. Dynamical, a Hard Spun colt, remains a maiden after losing a photo in a 9-furlong try at Gulfstream Park despite earning an 83 Beyer Speed Figure. "We think he could be a Derby horse," Casse said. "He's only run twice and got the nose his last start at Gulfstream."
The "Big Cap" is supported by 50 food trucks, 20 craft beers, live music and, oh yes, two other major graded stakes â€“ the $300,000, Grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile on the grass and the $250,000, Grade I Las Virgenes Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/16 miles on the main track.
The Kilroe field of eight includes Mr. Commons, a 4-year-old Artie Schiller colt who finished fifth in the Breeders' Cup Mile last fall but has posted wins in both his 2012 starts â€“ both Grade II events over the Santa Anita lawn. Jeranimo defeated Mr. Commons last fall in the Oak Tree Mile, finished seventh in the Breeders' Cup and finished second to Norvsky in the San Gabriel in his last start in mid-January. An interesting chance is Willyconker, an Irish-bred 4-year-old who has stepped up quickly from the claiming ranks and finished a late-running second to Mr. Commons in the Arcadia Stakes on Boxing Day in his last outing. Massone is back after finishing third in the Arcadia with some traffic trouble but has won only twice in 30 starts. Compari, a lightly raced 6-year-old, has won eight of 14 starts.
Eight potential Oaks candidates are entered for the somewhat tough-to-figure Las Virgenes. Willa B Awesome comes to the race off an major upset over Killer Graces in the Grade III Santa Ysabel in their last outing. Killer Graces won the Hollywood Starlet before that. Reneesgotzip won the Grade II Santa Ynez while Made to Love Her was second that race after winning the Moccasin Stakes at Hollywood last November.
Saturday's feature is the $150,000, Grade III Canadian Turf Stakes at 1 mile for 4-year-olds and up. This race, along with the Kilroe, will start to set the agenda for turf milers this year â€“ unless, of course, Frankel should unexpectedly target the Breeders' Cup in the fall.
A well-balanced field of eight signed on for the Candian Turf with Little Mike established as the 2-1 morning-line choice off four straight wins dating back to the same race last year. Mutual Trust, who raced in France, is making his second U.S. start for trainer Bill Mott after a fifth-place finish in the Group III Fort Lauderdale last time out. Doubles Partner returns from a 10-month layoff after finishing third in the Grade II Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs.
Looking past the Gotham, Aqueduct's Saturday card includes the $200,000, Grade II Top Flight Handcap for distaffers at 1 1/16 mile and the $200,000, Grade III Tom Fool at 6 furlongs.
The Tom Fool's field of six features Caleb's Posse in his first start since winning the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile at Churchill Downs. Caleb's Posse, who ships in from Oaklawn Park for the race, also enlivened 2011 with his nose victory over Uncle Mo in the King's Bishop last year at Saratoga. Todd Pletcher saddles Calibrachoa, who last year won both the Grade 3 Toboggan and the Tom Fool. Calibrachoa came back to win this year's running of the Toboggan by 2 1/4 lengths and is looking to repeat the double. Other tough sprinters in the field include Capt. Candyman Can, Royal Currier and Justin Philip. Against that formidable lineup, Godolphin sends Emcee, unbeaten and essentially unchallenged in two previous starts. Art Magnuson, assistant to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, admitted, "It's a big step up â€¦ We think we belong. If we don't, we can adjust, but he's as fast a horse as we've had in a long time." Emcee is a son of Unbridled's Song.
Godolphin has the prohibitive morning-line favorite in the Top Flight â€“ It's Tricky, the Mineshaft filly who won the Acorn and Coaching Club American Oaks last year before finishing second to Eclipse Award champ Royal Delta in the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic. Five others, include a Kelly Breen entry, look to be running for place money. Asked if It's Tricky can maintain that level of performance in her first 2012 start, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said, "I don't have that answer. I hope she maintains that Grade 1 status. She won two last year, and it's hard to maintain that. We expect her to be in the top five in her class. Hopefully, it works out well for us." Among those looking to take down the favorite is Delightful Mary, who has had two starts already this year and was second to Awesome Feather in her last start in the Sunshine Millions Distaff.
Sam Houston Race Park
Saturday's program stars the $150,000 Maxxam Gold Cup with 4-year-olds and up going 9 furlongs. Coyote Legend and Gleam of Hope are the 1-2 morning-line choices in a field of eight. Coyote Legend has not run out of the money in his last 11 starts.
The Aus-Group 1 Australian Guineas runs Saturday at Flemington. The NZ-Group 1 New Zealand Derby is Saturday at Ellerslie Race Course in Auckland â€“ a race won last year by Jimmy Choux.
ROBERT KIECKHEFER || UPI Racing Writer
The Santa Anita Handicap and Kentucky Derby preps in New York and Kentucky highlight weekend Thoroughbred racing.