By Gene Kershner
The last two races comprising the first leg of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series are on tap this weekend with 50 points and a Derby gate awaiting the winners. Saturday afternoon will find the trail in Florence, Ky. at Turfway Park, just outside of Cincinnati for the $550,000 Spiral Stakes. On Sunday afternoon, we'll head west to New Mexico and Sunland Park where the $800,000 Sunland Derby will be run.
Both of these races have produced recent Kentucky Derby winners, Mine That Bird came out of the Sunland Derby in 2009 and Animal Kingdom won the Spiral in 2011. The Spiral will be run on polytrack and the Sunland Derby is run on a dirt surface.
So what are some of the goings on in the racing world before we head into the major prep races next weekend while taking a break from March Madness to watch the two key preps this weekend?
- Itsmyluckyday stays atop of my Derby Dozen ballot and the poll itself as Volume III of the Wireplayers.com poll was released on Wednesday. He owns the fastest speed figure of any 3-year-old on the trail setting the track record in the Holy Bull in January. He is set to run next weekend in the highly competitive Florida Derby.
- Trainer Todd Pletcher will try and sneak two more colts into the Derby this weekend to join likely starters Verrazano and Revolutionary, both owners of 50 Derby points. At Turfway Park, he'll send Capo Bastone in the 12-horse field and maiden winner Abraham in New Mexico. Johnny V will head west to ride Abraham, who has the pedigree to make things interesting in Lobo land.
- The Spiral Stakes, a race I have grown to have much respect for, drew a nice field with some interesting horses that will battle. Specifically, Mac the Man, who has won two non-graded stakes on the polytrack, and turf horse Balance the Books, who last ran third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf for trainer Chad Brown.
- Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club winner Uncaptured will be the likely favorite and has been the buzz horse most of this week. He has experience on the polytrack up at his homebase at Woodbine, but there may be just enough speed in the race to favor a stalker or closer like General Election or Balance the Books that could catch him at the wire. It's an intriguing betting race likely to be determined by how fast they go early on.
- Shakin it Up looks to be the class of the Sunland Derby. The Midnight Lute colt is trained by Bob Baffert (@MidnightLute) and has been working lights out since his win in the Grade 2 San Vicente at Santa Anita. He'll also send Govenor Charlie to post, who looks to be a pretty nice horse. The track tends to favor speed horses, so keep an eye on the "other Baffert."
- Next Saturday will feature three 100 point races in the Florida Derby, the Louisiana Derby and the UAE Derby in Dubai.
- This weekend will be the final Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pool (#3) and Verrazano was made the 7-2 morning line favorite in the pool by Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia, who will also call the Spiral at Turfway Park.
- Titletown Five, a Tiznow colt owned by a partnership that includes former Green Bay Packer greats Paul Hornung and Willie Davis, will run in next weekend's Louisiana Derby. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who finished 1-2 in last weekend's Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, decided to keep him closer to home instead of shipping to New Mexico.
- Hornung, a Louisville native, was asked how he enticed Davis to join the colt's partnership on a national media call earlier this week. "I got Willie to get interested in it. I don't think Willie knows a horse from a billy goat, but he got involved and he's got a small piece," said the former Heisman Trophy winner. He was not shy on the faith he has in the horse either. "I learned how to make a wager, and believe me, if my horse would win the Derby, I'm going to break Las Vegas."