Steve Haskin's Derby Trail Stakes Preview: Aventura Comes Up Strong

Editor's note: The following report is the first in a series of previews and analyses of Kentucky Derby preps by Blood-Horse senior correspondent Steve Haskin. He will preview each stakes and what kind of impact it could have on the Derby trail. His regular Kentucky Derby Trail column will continue to appear every Tuesday or Wednesday, looking back on that week's activities and reporting on news items of interest. .

Saturday's one-mile Aventura Stakes at Gulfstream provides an interesting look into this year's 3-year-old picture. The 14-horse field is an indication of what a competitive group we have in Florida, and the number of trainers who can't wait to hit the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) trail. The field, which contains a number of potential Derby contenders, is made up of proven stakes winners, allowance winners, and impressive maiden winners. The last group will be at a disadvantage, not having proven themselves against winners and having to face the likes of solid stakes winners Saint Daimon, In Summation, and Catcominatcha.

One of the key horses is Saint Daimon, who is coming off two powerful performances, including a dominating score in the six-furlong Huntington Stakes at Aqueduct. If the son of Saint Ballado can reproduce that closing kick going a mile, he will become a major force on the Derby trail. Trained by Allen Jerkens, he could be the horse that gets his legendary trainer in the Derby for only the fourth time and first since 1992.

In Summation has the Calder-to-Gulfstream angle going for him, and even in his only career defeat, stretching out to two turns for the first time, he showed a lot of guts and should be tough on Saturday. But he will be facing much better horses than he did in the Florida Stallion Stakes series.

Catcominatcha looked strong running down the promising High Cotton in the Iroquois (gr. III), but showed little in the Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II). We'll have to see which horse shows up on Saturday before we can get a good line on him as a Derby horse.

Liquoreux has had an unusual first three starts, breaking his maiden at Belmont, winning a small stakes at Prairie Meadows, and finishing up the track in a small stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.

The allowance winners Little Cliff, trained by Nick Zito, and My Golden Song, trained by Todd Pletcher, look to be a strong pair. Both have all the tools to make a name for themselves in the upcoming months, and even an in-the-money effort on Saturday will be a big step in the right direction. Little Cliff, a son of Gulch, improved dramatically after stretching out to two turns in Kentucky, and showed his sharpness with a :47 2/5 work at Gulfstream. My Golden Song, by Unbridled's Song, is from a very strong female family, and is unbeaten in two starts. Watch these two in particular. With their respective trainers and their pedigree and style of running, both can take a major step up the ladder with a big performance.

Several of the maiden winners in the Aventura also bear watching, most notably the Jimmy Jerkens-trained Corinthian, who has a look of class about him; Dixie Swinger, who trainer Rick Dutrow touted as his best young horse in October; and Dr. Decherd, who looked super breaking his maiden by 13 1/2 lengths at Keeneland for Steve Asmussen before breaking poorly and finishing fourth in a Churchill allowance race. His 6-furlong work in 1:13 3/5 indicates he could be ready for another big effort.

Calder-based Big Lover has run three times since breaking his maiden, finishing second in the Jack Price Memorial and What a Pleasure Stakes. Barcola, trained by Eoin Harty, is an interesting horse who showed big improvement breaking maiden by 10 1/2 lengths at Calder at a mile. Itsallboutthechase broke his maiden at Churchill for Gary Simms. Another local horse, D'Broken Speed, broke his maiden wire-to-wire in the slop at Calder before finishing second to Hemingway's Key in an allowance race. Finally, Lake Kerr either wins big or loses big, but his wins have come in claiming and starter allowance races.

So, just how do you look at this race, which appears to be wide open and difficult to handicap? The horse to beat should be Saint Daimon, who has been cranked up by Jerkens, turning in seven-furlong works in 1:26 1/5 and 1:25 4/5. But looking down the line, it is important to see how Little Cliff and My Golden Song perform against this caliber of horses. Little Cliff will have to get a good position breaking from the far outside to avoid getting hung wide on the far turn, while My Golden Song will have to break sharply from post 1. It should be a good learning experience for both horses.

The maiden winners look up against it, but, again, it's not important whether they win, but whether they can compete with proven horses. One longshot to keep an eye on is Dr. Decherd. This is an unusually strong race this early in the year, and should give us a good peek into the future.

Saturday's Count Fleet Stakes at Aqueduct does not look to have any Smarty Joneses in there, with several of the leading contenders appearing to be better suited by shorter distances. Look for an improved effort from Fagan's Legacy, who didn't run to expectations in the Remsen Stakes (gr. II), but is a better horse than he showed that day. Also, the Rick Violette-trained Trailing Twelve has turned in some strong efforts and looks to be in a good spot breaking from the rail.

There were several horses that went unmentioned in this week's Derby Trail column. The most notable was Tatsuji, an Irish-bred son of Fusaichi Pegasus  who turned in a spectacular performance in his career debut at Santa Anita, in which he got squeezed at the start, dropping far back in last, then unleashed a powerhouse move to sweep by everyone. Despite racing greenly, ducking in at the three-sixteenths pole, he still was able to get back in gear and draw off to an impressive two-length score for last year's Derby-winning connections, John Shirreffs and Jerry and Ann Moss.

Another colt of interest from the same connections as one of last year's biggest stars is Frisco Star, who began his career in much the same manner as his stablemate Lost in the Fog. Also owned by Harry Aleo, Frisco Star, a son of More
Than Ready, broke his maiden by 8 1/2 lengths on Aug. 6 at Santa Rosa in a track-record 1:01 3/5 for 5 1/2 furlongs. He is up to five furlongs in his works at Golden Gate, and rattled off a half in :46 2/5 three works back on Dec. 17.