With two fairly uneventful weekends coming up, this is the perfect time to see how the big March Madness stakes are shaping up across the country. While many of the big-name horses will be running in smaller fields in Florida and California, look for large, competitive fields down south.
First off, we do have a few races to keep an eye on this weekend, with Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II) and Iroquois Stakes (gr. III) winner The Cliff's Edge
heading for the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay, and the promising Mustanfar
, having avoided the heavy hitters last weekend, running in the Palm Beach Stakes (gr. IIIT) on the grass. If the race should come off the grass, look for The Cliff's Edge to possibly stay home and run there instead.
At Aqueduct, the six-furlong Best Turn Stakes will feature the 3-year-old debut of Redskin Warrior
. Although most people might not recognize the name, he won his last two very impressively for trainer Jennifer Pederson. In his last start, a six-furlong allowance race at Aqueduct on Oct. 30, he looked awesome, drawing off with ease to win by 4 3/4 lengths in 1:10 flat. After the race, he was vanned off, but it turned out to be only a stone bruise. He's been working sharply and this race should set him up nicely for the Gotham Stakes (gr. III).
Now a look at the big March races. All eyes will be on the Florida Derby (gr. I) March 13, where Read the Footnotes
, who earned some monster speed figures in his gutsy win in the Fountain of Youth (gr. I), squares off against the Sham winner Master David
; last year's Champagne (gr. I) winner Birdstone
, who toyed with his rivals in a mile and 70-yard allowance race Saturday; and Value Plus
, who looked spectacular winning a seven-furlong allowance race the same day in 1:21 2/5. Value Plus glides over the ground with humongous strides, and trainer Todd Pletcher feels he'd prefer to keep him home and run him over a track he knows he likes. Also pointing for the Florida Derby are Sir Oscar
, who bled in the Fountain of Youth, and has since been turned over to Marty Wolfson; and Silver Wagon
, third in the Fountain of Youth.
The Louisiana Derby (gr. II) and Rebel Stakes (gr. III) are both expected to draw large, competitive fields. The latter kicks off Oaklawn's $5 million bonus offer to any horse who sweeps the Rebel, Arkansas Derby (gr. II), and Kentucky Derby.
The Louisiana Derby has the potential to lure at least 10 legitimate Kentucky Derby contenders. Pointing to the $600,000 race are Risen Star (gr. III) winner Gradepoint
, Sham runner-up Borrego
; Lecomte winner Fire Slam
, who turned in a brilliant six-furlong work in 1:12 breezing Wednesday; Lecomte runner-up Shadowland
; and three Pletcher-trained horses – Hutcheson (gr. III) winner Limehouse
, and Pollard's Vision
. Possible starters include the Bob Baffert-trained Preachinatthebar
, third in the Sham; Swingforthefences
, impressive allowance winner Saturday who is also possible for the Tampa Bay Derby; and the brilliant Gulfstream maiden winner Eddington
, if trainer Mark Hennig can't find a suitable allowance race.Borrego
, who could be a huge overlay at 52-1 in the Derby Future Wager, is a gorgeous, long-legged colt who has the look and pedigree of a true stayer, and the stride to match. He moved too soon in the Sham, and was caught by surprise on the inside by Master David, but continued on gamely to hold second. Trainer Beau Greely feels he'll appreciate the long stretch at Fair Grounds, and will enlist the services of Victor Espinoza, who rode him in his first two starts. If there is a steal in the Future Wager, he could be it, especially with him at 52-1 and Master David 19-l and Action This Day 14-1.
Oaklawn's big bonus has assured a stellar field in the Rebel, where everyone is still alive for the $5 million. A strong local contingent will highlight the field, headed by the late-running Tiger Hunt
, second in the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity (gr. II); Kentucky Jockey Club runner-up Gran Prospect
; the undefeated Smarty Jones
, who has never been threatened in three blowout victories, and who will prep in the Southwest Stakes Feb. 28; Mr. Jester
, second in the Risen Star and winner of two stakes last year; and Cryptograph
, winner of his last three. Expected to ship in are The Cliff's Edge
; the Bobby Frankel-trained Ice Wynnd Fire
, beaten a nose in the Sunshine Millions Dash; and Pomeroy
, who finished first in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile (gr. III), only to be disqualified.
Heading to California, the one-mile San Rafael Stakes (gr. II) promises to be a beauty, with undefeated sensation Lion Heart
scheduled to make his 3-year-old debut against the San Vicente (gr. II) one-three finishers, Imperialism
and the Baffert-trained Consecrate; Santa Catalina runner-up Lucky Pulpit
; the exciting maiden winner Quintons Gold Rush
; and Spellbinder
from Dick Mandella's barn, who has won his last two. Possible is Last Minute Detail
. Keep an eye on a 1 1/16-mile allowance race Friday with the Baffert pair of Coldntight
and Courageous Act
meeting the improving Cheiron
The horse to watch coming out of the San Rafael is Quintons Gold Rush
, who could be any kind. A big, light-bodied colt who looks like he can run all day, he had trouble when second to Preachinatthebar in a maiden race, then won by 3 1/2 in 1:42 flat, defeating Wimbledon, who came back to win by eight lengths, and Hippocrates, who came back to win by four lengths. He gallops out like he wants to keep going, and just needs a good effort in here to move on to bigger and better things in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I). Corey Nakatani will replace Pat Valenzuela.
Skipping the San Rafael to await the San Felipe (gr. II) a week later will be the champ, Action This Day
, who should move forward off the Sham; St Averil
, who is one of the most appealing Future Wager bets at 25-1; and Wimbledon
, who has been Baffert's main hope all year, despite just recently breaking his maiden.
The forgotten horse is St Averil
, who looks to have all the tools to be a classic contender. He has the pedigree and has done some remarkable things for a young, inexperienced horse, such as finishing second to Lion Heart in the Hollywood Futurity (gr. I) coming off only one maiden sprint. In that maiden race, he crushed Dwango
, who came back to beat Wimbledon by six lengths. In the Santa Catalina, he defeated Master David and Preachinatthebar, who came back to finish first and third, respectively, in the Sham Stakes. This is a very attractive 25-1 shot.
Moving on to other races, the 6 1/2-furlong Baldwin Stakes (gr. IIIT) on the grass Feb. 28 will attract Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) runner-up Minister Eric
and Sunshine Millions Dash winner Saint Afleet
, both of whom will use the race as a prep for two-turn dirt stakes.
The Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) on March 14 will pick up several horses whose connections opted skip the major preps. Zito could run El Prado Rob
or Pies Prospect
; Neil Howard may run his impressive allowance winner Breakaway
, who also is a candidate for the Rebel or the March 20 Lane's End Stakes (gr. II). And Swingforthefences could show up here instead of the Louisiana Derby.
The highly regarded Eurosilver
will remain sprinting in the March 13 Swale Stakes (gr. II) before stretching back out in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I). The El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) should pit Golden Gate Derby winner Skipaslew
against Golden State Mile winner O.K. Mikie
, who was second in the Golden Gate Derby. Highly touted Capac
returns to Laurel for the Feb. 28 Miracle Wood Stakes.