It's a long way from the first Saturday in January to the first Saturday in May, but for eight newly minted three-year-olds, Saturday's Grade 2, $200,000 Jerome at Aqueduct could serve as a road map to the future.
In its new position on the calendar, where it replaces the Count Fleet, the Jerome is followed by the Grade 3 Withers on February 2 and the Grade 3 Gotham on March 2, all leading up to the Grade 1, $1 million Wood Memorial on April 6, New York's major prep for the Kentucky Derby.
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who took last year's Count Fleet with eventual Grade 1 Travers winner Alpha, sends out Darley Stable's impeccably bred Long River, an gutsy inner-track maiden winner three weeks ago. The son of A. P. Indy and 2006 Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Round Pond was seventh in his September debut at Belmont Park, and then finished a game second to Delhomme -- later third in the Grade 2 Remsen -- going a mile on October 13.
"It's a big step up for him, going from a maiden to a Grade 2, but you have to have some dreams and hopes," said McLaughlin, who on Saturday also will saddle favored Asiya in the co-featured $100,000 Busanda for three-year-old fillies. "He's got the pedigree to go any distance, and we're willing to give him a try."
Listed at 5-2 on the morning line, Long River will leave from post position 3 with Irad Ortiz Jr. aboard.
Trainer Doug O'Neill, who won last year's Kentucky Derby with I'll Have Another, is hoping newly acquired Mudflats will take him back to Churchill Downs. Debuting in the same Belmont race as Long River, in which he finished fourth, Mudflats next finished third behind Delhomme and Long River and then was purchased privately by Little Red Feather Racing following his maiden victory on December 8 at Aqueduct.
"He's a beautiful looking individual," said O'Neill of the gelded gray son of Tapit. "His maiden victory was very impressive, and I love the fact that (jockey) Junior Alvarado is high on him as well. We're looking for a strong performance from him, something we can build on, and hopefully he will be a first Saturday in May kind of horse."
Favored at 2-1 is Vyjack, undefeated in two starts at Aqueduct. The son of Into Mischief scored by 1 3/4 lengths in his debut on November 10, and then romped home 5 3/4 lengths clear over a sloppy track in the Traskwood overnight stakes on December 9.
"He'll be stretching out, going around two turns, and trying the inner track for the first time," trainer Rudy Rodriguez said. "It will be a learning experience for him, and for us. It's a very competitive race, but he's been training very well."
Testing the waters as he makes his second start on conventional dirt is Notacatbutallama, runner-up to Smooth Bert in the Damon Runyon for New York-breds on December 9. The Harlan's Holiday colt made his first six starts on the turf, emerging with three victories, two seconds and a fourth-place finish.
"He's been a very durable two-year-old," said trainer Todd Pletcher of Notacatbutallama. "He's a high-energy kind of colt who seems to bounce out his races really quickly. We were encouraged by his first race on the dirt. I thought he got a little lost when he made the lead, and never saw the winner coming up the rail.
"As a New York-bred, there are a lot of options on the turf this summer. This is a step up in competition, and how he does could determine whether he will get a freshening to await those, or remain on this trail."
Rounding out the field are Siete de Oros, Amerigo Vespucci, Vegas No Show, and James Jingle.
Immediately preceding the Jerome will be the 40th edition of the Busanda. At one mile and 70 yards, the race drew a field of six, with Asiya narrowly favored over the Pletcher-trained Princess of Sylmar and Kiss the Lady, a supplementary entry from Rodriguez.
"She's a very nice filly," said McLaughlin of Asiya, who was third in her debut on October 11 at Belmont. "Going from a seven-furlong maiden win (on December 9) to a stakes race going long is a big step, but she's very talented and we think she will run well."
After finishing a disappointing fourth going 5 1/2 furlongs in October at Penn National, Princess of Sylmar rebounded a month later with a 19-length romp in a one-mile maiden event and next scored an easy 5 1/4-length win in an allowance on December 12 at Aqueduct.
"We wanted to take advantage of her being a Pennsylvania-bred, but she won so convincingly she earned her way to New York," said Pletcher, who will also saddle Coconut Shrimp. "The stretch out has helped her a lot."
Rounding out the field are Ruby Lips, and By Golly Molly.