By Richard Rosenblatt
In another two weeks, the road to the 148th Kentucky Derby (G1) really begins to heat up with a huge increase in qualifying points in Derby prep races.
Beginning with the Risen Star Stakes (G2) on Feb. 19, qualifying points rise to 50-20-10-5 for seven preps and to 100-40-20-10 for eight preps.
Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, though.
At the Big A, a field of 11 was entered for the $250,000 Withers Stakes (G3) at 1 1/8 miles, with maiden winner Early Voting the 3-1 favorite for trainer Chad Brown over 7-2 second choice Courvoisier, winner of the 1-mile Jerome Stakes on Jan. 1.
Trained by Kelly Breen, Courvoisier picked up 10 Derby qualifying points in the Jerome, and a win on Saturday would give him 20 – last year, Brooklyn Strong was 20th in the final Derby points standings with 10 points (the Derby field is capped at 20 starters based on qualifying points).
A chestnut son of Tapit, Courvoisier seems to do his best as a stalker, and Breen is happy to be back at a longer distance.
“He’s always been a big boy. He was a big boy at birth and he’s filling in,” Breen said. “He’s a nice horse and I think that the longer the better for him. We have high hopes for him – let him show it on the track.”
Early Voting, who opened his career with a 1-mile win at the Big A on Dec. 18 as a heavy favorite. Jose Ortiz has the mount from post 9.
“It really seems like he’s progressed well off his first race. His works have been excellent and I’m excited to see him run back,” Dan Strupp, Brown’s Belmont-based assistant, said of the son of 2021 leading freshman sire Gun Runner. “He’s bred to run all day and we thought the longer the better since we’ve had him. He’s coming off just a maiden win so it’s a big ask first time against winners off one race, but he’s given us every indication that he’ll show up with a good effort.”
Also in the field are Smarten Up, Cooke Creek, and Unbridled Bomber, who ran 2-3-4 in the Jerome.
Post time for the Withers is 4:25 p.m. ET (all times are ET)
$250,000 Holy Bull Stakes (G3), 1 1/16 miles, 3-year-olds
Mo Donegal is the 5-2 favorite for Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher in a field of nine.
A son of Uncle Mo, Mo Donegal makes his 3-year-old debut coming off a victory in the Remsen (G2) at 1 1/8 miles on Dec. 4 and was 2-for-3 in 2021. Irad Ortiz, Jr., has the call from post 2.
Other top contenders include Giant Game at 7-2, Simplification at 4-1 and Tiz the Bomb and White Abarrio each at 6-1.
“We decided that the Holy Bull was the right starting point,” Pletcher said, referring to discussions with owner Jerry Crawford (Donegal Stable) after the Remsen. “It gives us plenty of options. If he were to run well, we still have the Fountain of Youth (March 4) to come back in if we wanted to or we could train up to the Florida Derby like we did with Audible.”
Tiz the Bomb, trained by Kenny McPeek, was second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1), while Dale Romans-trained Giant Game was third in the BC Juvenile (G1).
The Bob Baffert effect will be felt mostly in California this Derby season, and in this race it’s Messier who takes on four rivals as the favorite.
Messier, a son of Empire Maker, is 2-for-4 (two seconds) with a win in the Bob Hope Stakes (G3) and a one-length loss to Slow Down Andy in the Los Alamitos Derby (G2).
John Velazquez will be aboard for the first time leaving from post 1.
Sir Lincoln, trained by Simon Callaghan, could be a top prospect as he comes into the race off a 10-length maiden win on Dec. 4. at Los Alamitos in his third career start.
Flavien Prat has the mount leaving from post 2.
Also in the field are Cabo Spirit, Happy Jack, and Wharton (also trained by Baffert).
As for Baffert, he has a slew of Derby prospects as usual, but he’s suspended by Churchill Downs after his record-setting seventh Derby winner Medina Spirit failed a post-race test for a banned race-day medication. A final ruling on the official results of the race has yet to be resolved. Horses trained by Baffert, or anyone employed by him, are ineligible for Derby qualifying points.
GULFSTREAM PARK (Saturday)
$100,000 Forward Gal Stakes (G3), 7 furlongs, 3-year-old fillies
Radio Days is the 8-5 favorite in a field of seven for her 3-year-old debut after going 2-for-2 in 2021.
“She’s a filly we’re really excited about. Her first two races have been really good,” Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey said. “She’s had a little bit of a break now. She’s going to run Saturday, and hopefully her future is ahead of her.”
Dylan Davis has the call leaving from post 5. Girl With a Dream, trained by Brad Cox, is the 5-2 second choice, and Diamond Wow is 9-2 for trainer Patrick Biancone.
$100,000 Swale Stakes (G3), 7 furlongs, 3-year-olds
Post time: 1:57 p.m. (race 5)
My Prankster is the 2-1 favorite in a field of six for trainer Todd Pletcher.
A son of top sire Into Mischief, the chestnut colt won an allowance optional allowance claiming race at Gulfstream on Dec. 10 and ran fourth in the Champagne (G1) back on Oct. 2.
Luis Saez rides out of post 1.
$100,000 Kitten’s Joy Stakes (G3), 1 1/16 miles, turf, 3-year-olds
Grand Sonata is the 3-1 favorite in a field of eight for the 10th running of the Kitten’s Joy.
Pletcher also sends out Royal Spirit at 5-1.
Red Danger is the 7-2 second choice for trainer Brian Lynch. A son of Orb, Red Danger has a record of 6-3-1-0 and comes into the race off a victory in the Pulpit Stakes at Gulfstream on Dec. 3.
SANTA ANITA PARK (Saturday)
$200,000 San Pasqual Stakes (G2), 1 1/8 miles, 4-year-olds and up
Some familiar names return to the races for this one, including 2-1 favorite Express Train, 5-2 Law Professor, 3-1 Eight Rings, and 7-2 Spielberg in a field of six.
Trained by John Sheriffs, Express Train has three Grade 2 wins, most recently in the San Antonio Stakes on Dec. 26 (over Hot Rod Charlie) to complete his 4-year-old campaign. He won the San Pasqual last year.
Victor Espinoza rides from post 2.
Law Professor outlasted Grade 1 winner Beyond Brilliant to win the Santa Anita Mathis Mile (G2) on Dec. 26 for trainer Michael McCarthy.
Juan Hernandez rides the 4-year-old out of post 6.
Eight Rings, a close third in the San Antonio, gets the services of John Velazquez in the 14th start of his career that has produced a record of 13-3-1-2.
Bob Baffert, who trains Eight Ring, also sends out Spielberg, a Derby prospect in 2021 who was then given 9 ½ months off. He retuned with a three-length win in an allowance race on Jan. 14 and seems ready to roll again.
Flavien Prat will ride from post 5.
$200,000 Santa Monica Stakes (G2), 7 furlongs, 4 and up fillies and mares
Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) winner Ce Ce is the 3-5 favorite in a field of five as she kicks off her 6-year-old campaign.
Trained by Michael McCarthy the daughter on Elusive Quality has a career record of 16-8-1-1 and $1.75 million in earnings.
Jockey Victor Espinoza has the call leaving from post 2.
Challengers include the Bob Baffert pair of Kalypso at 3-1 and Merneith at 7-2.
SANTA ANITA PARK (Sunday)
$200,000 Las Virgenes Stakes (G3), 1 mile, 3-year-old fillies
Post time: 4:30 p.m. (race 3)
Impressive maiden winner Adare Manor top s the field of five in this Kentucky Oaks (G1) qualifier worth points of 10-4-2-1 to the first four finishers.
Adare Manor broke her maiden with a 12-length romp going a mile in her third career start for trainer Bob Baffert.
The filly by Uncle Mo ran fourth at 3-5 odds in her second start back in November but went gate-to-wire for her victory at Santa Anita on Jan. 7.
Notes: Oaklawn Park canceled weekend racing because of a winter storm in Arkansas. The lost dates, Feb. 4-6, will be replaced with added dates March 17, 24, and 31, according to track officials. The Bayakoa Stakes (G3), originally scheduled for Saturday, will be run Feb. 12 … FOX Sports’ “America’s Day at the Races” will have its usual live racing show, from 2:30-5 p.m. on FS2, while TVG features live racing, including the weekend Derby preps … Tampa Bay Downs heats up on Saturday with a pair of turf stakes: the $175,000 Endeavour (G3) for 4 and up fillies and mares and the $175,000 Tampa Bay Stakes (G3) for 4-year-olds and up. Both races are at 1 /16 miles — Tampa Bay. Lady Speightspeare is the 3-1 favorite in the Endeavour; Devamani is the 3-1 top choice in the Tampa Bay Stakes.
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.