Nationwide stakes action comes fast and furious Feb. 10, highlighted by the seasonal debuts of Eclipse Award winners World Approval in the Tampa Bay Stakes (G3T), and Unique Bella in the Santa Maria Stakes (G2).
On the Gulf Coast, the $175,000 Tampa Bay anchors a four-stakes "Festival Preview Day" at Tampa Bay Downs that begins with the $150,000 Suncoast, a qualifying points race (10-4-2-1) for the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1), and also includes the Lambholm South Endeavour (G3T), and the Sam F. Davis (G3), a 17-point qualifier for the Kentucky Derby Presented By Woodford Reserve (G1).
On the Left Coast, the $200,000 Santa Maria kicks off an all-graded stakes pick three that goes through the Thunder Road (G3T) and the San Vicente (G2) at Santa Anita Park.
Down in sunny South Florida, a late pick four with a $300,000 guaranteed pool at Gulfstream Park begins with a pair of 1 1/8-mile grass stakes, the Gulfstream Park Turf (G1T) and the Suwannee River (G3T).
Oh, and Aqueduct Racetrack hosts a Cross Country Pick Four that begins with the $150,000 Jimmy Winkfield Stakes, and includes the Suwanee River and San Vicente.
Needless to say, World Approval and Unique Bella are a couple of grays that look pretty strong. World Approval used the Tampa Bay turf course as a launching pad last year, taking the EG Vodka Turf Classic Stakes as a warm-up for a stellar campaign that finished with three straight grade 1 tallies. A good effort Saturday likely earns him a trip to the $6 million Dubai Turf sponsored by DP World (G1T) March 31. Unique Bella snagged the female sprint championship by taking the seven-furlong La Brea Stakes (G1) in her final start at age 3, but she may be better at the Santa Maria's 1 1/16 miles judging from a win over champion 3-year-old filly Abel Tasman in the Santa Ysabel Stakes (G3) last March.
How do some of the other stakes favorites look? Here are some thoughts:
Jimmy Winkfield Stakes (Aqu, race 8, 4:35 ET): Devine Entry is a lukewarm 2-1 choice in a field of seven sophomore sprinters, which is logical enough since his runner-up finish in the Heft Stakes at Laurel Park ranks as the group's best effort at seven furlongs, and he was working on only two weeks of rest for that race.
Global Citizen, who ran his last quarter-mile in under 24 seconds to win first out at Laurel, acts as though an additional eighth of a mile will be to his liking. He may trip out nicely breaking from the outside, in a race where A Different Style and California Night may hook up early.
Gulfstream Park Turf (GP, race 9, 4:10 ET): Heart to Heart is 5-2 from the rail, which is a good draw for the run-and-gun type who reared at the start and was taken out of his best game as the odds-on choice in the recent Fort Lauderdale Stakes (G2T).
Suwannee River (GP, race 10, 4:43 ET): Kitten's Roar looks legit, but breaks from the far outside and will have to avoid losing too much ground, as she did when off the board in the Matriarch Stakes (G1T) in her ninth and final start of 2017.
Chad Brown has two in here—Elysea's World, who is 0 for 13 in stakes company; and Dream Awhile, who was headstrong early in the Tropical Park Oaks, but kicked in strongly to win stylishly over Westit, who is cross-entered here and in the Endeavour. This will be the first try against older mares for Dream Awhile, but she may be the goods.
San Vicente (SA, race 6, 2:30 PT): Bob Baffert has won this race nine times, and will be hard to deny here with Ax Man, who is the 6-5 choice off a blowout maiden win first time out. Among those in his wake that day was Lombo, who won last week's Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G3).
Ax Man is a homebred half-brother to Indian Blessing, champion juvenile filly of 2007, and champion female sprinter the following year for the same connections.
Sam F. Davis (Tam, race 10, 4:52 ET): I know he won't be fully revved up, but Catholic Boy (8-5) still figures to be mighty tough based on the way he won the Remsen Stakes (G2) off a turf-to-dirt switch for Pletcher protege Jonathan Thomas. His final margin was almost five lengths over Avery Island, and that result is all the more impressive after the latter returned to win the Withers Stakes (G3) last week.
The main threats are Vino Rosso, 2 for 2 for Pletcher; Hollywood Star, held out of last Saturday's Holy Bull Stakes (G2) for this; and Vouch, a wide-trip third in the Remsen in just his second career start.