For some reason, the Spiral Stakes (GII) has somewhat become the Kentucky Derby’s evil red-headed step child as far as preps are concerned. In recent years it seems like it’s taken a back seat to other high-profile preps like the Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, Arkansas Derby and Santa Anita Derby, but make no bones about it: the Spiral Stakes has produced and will continue to produce legitimate Triple Crown runners. This year looks to promise a solid Derby prospect or two with just five weeks until the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.”
Some of the more notable runners to have returned to the Turfway Park winner’s circle after a Spiral victory include Summer Squall, Hansen, Lil E. Tee, Prairie Bayou, Serena’s Song, Hard Spun and Animal Kingdom. So while the nine-furlong prep has changed names a few times over the years (it was once the Jim Beam Stakes and even the Galleryfurniture.com Stakes) it hasn’t lost its penchant for cranking out good horses.
The rain and warmer temperatures that have been in the area for the past week will clear out by the weekend and conditions are turning colder. Rain isn’t likely after Thursday night and because Turfway is one of the last synthetic surfaces remaining in North America, weather shouldn’t be a factor for the surface condition on Saturday regardless of precipitation.
The 14 horses entered in the Spiral this year have come from all parts far and wide — the North, the South, the East, the Wet and even Europe. And not one has shown up without legitimate credentials to at least hit the board.
Surgical Strike, once a pretty talented turf performer, drew the two-hole after winning the local prep, the John Bettaglia Memorial, last month over the surface. This will be the son of Red Giant’s sixth track in his ninth career start, so to say he’s well-traveled is an understatement. Though he’s only won two races so far, he’s had just one bad race in his career, finishing well back in last year’s Bourbon Stakes (GIIIT) over a very yielding turf course. This is by far the biggest stage his connections have ever been on and they have a good one who figures — if he can use his late running style and successfully navigate through traffic after he launches his move.
When grassy Grade III winner Airoforce switched to the main track and won last year’s sloppy Kentucky Jockey Club (GII) over the Churchill Downs surface, people sat up and took notice of the Mark Casse-trained colt. He never missed a beat in Florida in the early winter and was the favorite in the Feb. 28 Risen Star Stakes (GII) at Fair Grounds. But after a very troubled trip and next-to-last place finish, Casse took the time to regroup and figure out a better strategy to get him to the Derby. Back in action after some steady works in Florida and, maybe, because he’s back on a synthetic surface he may appreciate more than dirt, Airoforce may deserve another long look before being tossed from consideration. High percentage local jock Albin Jimenez takes over for Casse go-to Julien Leparoux, who stays in Florida for a Florida Derby mount.
Graham Motion and Team Valor reconciled and are back with another in Kasseopia. This team took this race in 2011 with eventual Derby winner Animal Kingdom and, therefore, clearly know how to get the job done using the Sprial as a springboard. This colt is a bit of a mystery coming from Europe’s all-weather, stopping at Woodbine’s all-weather, then Golden Gate’s all-weather and, now, for the first time in the care of Motion, trying Turfway’s all-weather. With all that, one must wonder if the dirt Derby is a logical next target — even if Kasseopia does manage to earn the 50 points up for grabs in the Spiral. Team Valor isn’t a group to sit out the big races and are always ready with loaded dice, so stranger things have happened.
California-bred Ralis ran a very flat 10th in the Rebel Stakes (GII) last time out and tries again for valuable Derby points here. After winning Saratoga’s Hopeful Stakes (GI) last year, he subsequently was last in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) Nov. 1, a somewhat surprising performance for the Doug O’Neill trainee. Perhaps Ralis was raced too much as a juvenile (seven races starting in May) or maybe he just peaked in late summer, but he’s always been a good work horse and now tries a synthetic surface for the first time. If he gets back to his old form and gets a good trip from his preferred spot from just off the pace, he could have a big say in the outcome here. Corey Nakatani picks up the mount.
Two Step Time and Crescent Drive ship in from Houston off a win and a third-place finish, respectively, in the Texas Heritage stakes at the end of February. This race is a big step up in class for both runners and they will need their best to pick up a check.
Post time for the Spiral, which has been carded as the afternoon’s 10th race, has been set for 5:43 p.m. EDT.