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Post Time: Winding down the Derby trail

     Two key Kentucky Derby prep races highlight this weekend's action on the Derby Trail to Louisville. This weekend will conclude the first round of prep races and most colts pointing to the first Saturday in May will have only one more opportunity to garner those cherished graded earnings necessary to qualify for one of the 20 available gates the Derby offers.

     We'll travel from coast to coast this weekend as Tampa Bay Downs' signature race, the Grade 2 $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby to run over 1 1/16-miles on Saturday afternoon. This race received a purse boost in 2012, as well as an upgrade in status from a Grade 3 race.

    A fairly large field of 12 horses will attack the Tampa Bay surface, and one of the top contenders is trainer Eddie Kenneally's Battle Hardened. The Giant's Causeway sophomore certainly has the pedigree to tackle the classic distance of the Derby, his last U.S. colt to threaten on the Derby trail, was the multiple-Grade 1 winner, Eskendereya, who pulled out, early in Derby week 2010. He currently sits 25th on graded earnings list, so this race provides an opportunity to solidify a spot in this year's Derby.

    Kenneally's colt broke his maiden in a stakes race, the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis earlier this month. Julien Leparoux, who also rides one of the top 3-year old in the country, Union Rags, has the mount atop Battle Hardened. When asked what will happen down the road, should his colt qualify for the Derby, Kenneally is going with the flow with regards to his rider.

     "We'll just take one race at a time, but we're delighted that Julien is available to ride him back in the Tampa Bay Derby after winning the Sam Davis.  And as far as Union Rags goes, I mean he's by far the legitimate leader of the 3-year old division right now, so at some point perhaps we'll be looking for a rider.  But we'll just stick with what's working for right now, and figure it out as we go forward."

     Another colt who looked terrific in his last outing is Todd Pletcher's Spring Hill Farm. He will be running his third career race and steps into deeper waters in the Tampa Bay Derby. His last race achieved a milestone in Pletcher's illustrious career, win number 3000, so you know that Pletcher would love to have this colt continue his upward trend in Tampa.

     Turning out west, Santa Anita will host the Grade 2 $300,000 San Felipe Stakes on Saturday afternoon. Breeders' Cup Juvenile third place finisher Creative Cause. The Giant's Causeway colt looking to win the elusive Derby crown will be looking to rebound from a third place finish in the San Vicente where he finished a length behind the eventual winner, Drill.

    Speaking of Drill, his trainer Bob Baffert will send out two colts, Bodemeister and Liaison. Bodemeister broke his maiden impressively posting a 99 Beyer in doing so. Named after Baffert's young son, he does not have any graded earnings to date, so this is a huge race for the Bodemeister. Baffert also sends out Liaison, currently seventh in graded stakes earnings and most likely assured of a gate in May.

     Martin Garcia will be aboard the Indian Charlie colt who clipped heels and tossed jockey Rafael Bejarano at the start of the Grade 2 Robert Lewis. He benefits from winning the Hollywood Cash Call Futurity as a 2-year old which gave him $290,000 of graded earnings, which should be more than enough to obtain a Derby gate.

     Trainer Mike Harrington also will send out two colts in the San Felipe, Creative Cause and Empire Way. Jockey Joel Rosario has ridden both horses in the past, but gains the mount on the talented Creative Cause. He wasn't originally planning on running them in the same race, but his options were limited. "The only reason I'm running them both in the same race is because of the timing.  I had a plan for Creative Cause from the very beginning, which included this race, and Empire Way, I don't really want to ship him out of town at this point in time, plus the timing is right on him also.  So that's just the main reason I'm running them both there is just because of the timing," said Harrington.

     A contender who is looking to stretch out for the first time is the Hard Spun colt, Midnight Transfer. Impressive in several outings at sprint distances for trainer Carla Gaines, this could be his breakout race. He too, had Rosario in the irons for his last two races, thus Victor Espinoza picks up the ride. He's moved forward in every race, so don't count him out when you go to the windows on Saturday.

     Another race with graded earnings implications this weekend is the Grade 3 Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream Park, where Dullahan will try and imitate his trainer's 2010 Derby hopeful, Paddy O'Prado, who went the same Palm Beach-Bluegrass route to Louisville.

     Conditioner Dale Romans sends out the Breeders' Cup Juvenile fourth place finisher.  Romans was bullish on Dullahan's chances and provided the national racing media with his thoughts on his Breeders' Cup effort during Tuesday's teleconference. "I don't know if people picked up on how good it was.  I mean he got really squeezed.  He shut off in the first turn, was all the way back to last, and showed a big run down the lane on the dirt.  So he is very versatile, and that's a good thing in any horse."

     Good luck this weekend and let's go cash some tickets!

     Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer and handicapper who blogs at and tweets @EquiSpace.


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Budd Bailey

Budd Bailey

Budd Bailey has served in a variety of roles in Buffalo sports in the past 35 years, including reporter, talk-show host, baseball announcer, public relations staffer and author. He covers the Bandits and running for The News when not working as an editor.