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Post Time: Friday racing notebook

By Gene Kershner 

With just over two weeks to go before Kentucky Derby 140 the field is changing almost daily due to defections, injuries and connections deciding to skip the Run for the Roses on the First Saturday in May. 

Some news, notes and thoughts before next weekend's Degrees of Separation post… 

-- The last race with a chance to earn qualifying points for the Derby will be tomorrow afternoon at Keeneland where the Grade 3 $200,000 Lexington Stakes will be run. The last chance race will offer 10 points to the winner, 4 to the runner-up and the third and fourth place finishers will earn 2 and 1 point, respectively. 

-- Only one horse, Ami's Holiday (10 points) in the Lexington has a chance to qualify for a Derby gate. A win would vault him in the field at No. 20 in the current standings; a second-place finish would place him at 27th with an outside chance to get in through defections.  The Lexington will be the first start of his 3-year-old campaign for the son of Harlan's Holiday trained by Woodbine-based trainer Josie Carroll. We may well see this Ontario-bred colt later on down the road in the Queen's Plate. 

-- The horse currently in the final spot is Uncle Sigh, trained by Gary Contessa, who looks to be a lock to get in the race, as there are 2-3 horses that are likely going to drop out of the top 20 before Derby week. This would be Contessa's first horse to qualify for the Derby. 

-- To see the current standings and a first peek at my annual Derby spreadsheet loaded with analytics and statistics on each horse currently in the top 20, go here. The spreadsheet provides information on post positions, pedigree, speed figures and dosage for the current qualifiers.  I'll be updating it as more information (jockey confirmations, last race speed figures, etc.) become available. 

-- The biggest defection so far was from the Todd Pletcher barn who announced on Wednesday that Win Star Farm's Constitution, the Florida Derby winner, suffered an injury and would not enter the Derby. It does not appear to be season-ending and we'll likely see him later in the season. 

-- Ironically the horse sitting at No. 21 is Vinceremos, the Tampa Derby winner, who is also trained by Pletcher and could be his fourth entry in this year's race and is also owned by Win Star Farm. 

-- Midnight Hawk, the son of Midnight Lute, sits currently at No. 14 (52 points) is entered in this weekend's Illinois Derby, a prep race for the Preakness.  It would be highly unlikely for trainer Bob Baffert to wheel him back in two weeks in Louisville, so that appears to be a potential open gate for the next qualifier. Midnight Hawk is owned in part by former football coach Mike Tice and current Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. 

-- In his first work since winning the Grade 1 Wood Memorial, Wicked Strong breezed a solid half-mile in 49.62 seconds on Thursday morning over the Belmont Park training track in preparation for the Derby. Named after the bomb victims of last year's Boston Marathon, the son of 2007 Derby runner-up Hard Spun will be among the favorites for this year's race. "He did most of his work on the turns, which is what I wanted; I thought it would keep him from working too fast," said trainer Jim Jerkens, 55, who has never saddled a Derby starter. "He eased up a little bit in the stretch and then picked it before the wire. It was just what I was looking for."

--  Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack (FLGR) will kick off the 2014 live thoroughbred racing season this afternoon. The historic Western New York track’s 52nd season will begin with the nine-race Opening Day card. Post time for the first race is scheduled for 12:35 p.m. Chris Englehart will also be presented an award for his achievements in 2013. He was the top FLGR conditioner for the eleventh consecutive year. Englehart saddled 143 winning horses to register his thirteenth career trainer title. He surpassed the 3,500 mark in lifetime wins during the FLGR break.

-- The grandson of former thoroughbred owner and late Buffalo real estate entrepreneur Roxie Gian passed along a letter his grandfather received from late Bills owner Ralph Wilson recently.  The letter from Wilson on his Oxford Stable letterhead to Woodbine Hall of Fame trainer Frank Merrill was to purchase five horses back in February 1969 for $20,000. 

-- Expect the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to be in full force during Derby week after posting a damning video about trainer Steve Asmussen's barn. The group placed an undercover volunteer in the barn last year at Churchill and Saratoga in attempts to document certain practices in Asmussen's barn. He currently has the likely favorite for the Kentucky Oaks (Untapable) and a top contender for the Derby (Tapiture) and will be facing media scrutiny most of the week. 

Let the analysis begin… 

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.

Post Time: Talent-laden Arkansas Derby on tap Saturday

By Gene Kershner

If the latest Derby Dozen is any indication of the talent in this weekend's $1 million Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, we're in for a whale of a race. Of the dozen horses on the listing, five of the eight horses are scheduled to run on Saturday at Oaklawn Park. The race will be seen live on the NBC Sports Network between 6-7 p.m. ET.

The Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland will be part of a 90-minute telecast on Fox Sports 1 from 4:30 - 6 p.m. Saturday afternoon preceding the Arkansas Derby. The Blue Grass drew a full field of 14 horses with one on the also-eligible list.

Trainer Bob Baffert ships in the lightly raced Bayern (2-1), who will attempt to qualify for the Derby with a top-two finish in the Arkansas Derby. Embattled trainer Steve Asmussen has his best Derby hope and morning line favorite, Tapiture (9-5), looking to increase his point total (42) to ensure a gate on the First Saturday in May.

Let's take a look at each of the horses in the Arkansas Derby (trainer, jockey, ML odds in parenthesis):

1 - Danza (Pletcher, Bravo, 15-1). This Street Boss colt won the G2 Saratoga Special last summer and has only one race in 2014 under his belt at Gulfstream. He stretches out for the first time and will need a top two finish to even sniff the Derby. Looking elsewhere.

2 - Knock Em Flat (Von Hemel, Quinonez, SCR). Trainer Von Hemel announced on Thursday that the son of Flatter will skip the Arkansas Derby and run in Saturday's $100K Nothern Spur instead.

3 - Tapiture (Asmussen, Rosario, 9-5). He ranked on top of my Wireplayers ballot, but so did Cairo Prince before the Florida Derby two weeks ago, so I could be giving him the kiss of death. Lost the Rebel to Hoppertunity last month, who came back to post a solid second behind likely Derby favorite California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby last weekend. He's a versatile colt that can go to the lead or set off it to make his run. The one to beat.

4 - Ride On Curlin (Gowan, Court, 12-1). The son of the 2007 Arkansas Derby winner will try to match his daddy's efforts on the Oaklawn strip. He finished a half-length behind the favorite in the Rebel for a respectable third. Trainer worked him 7-furlongs earlier last weekend trying to sharpen his fitness for the big one. He sits in 22nd place on the Leaderboard with 15 points, so a top three finish will be important to his Derby chances. Contender.

5 - Thundergram (Casse, Arroyo Jr., 30-1). Casse puts the blinkers on and wins at a 17 percent clip second off the layoff. Fashions a bullet workout last Saturday over the track and could be an exotics play underneath.

6 - Commissioner (Pletcher, Smith, 8-1). Any time you have these connections north of 5-1 it pays to stay attentive to the odds board. The son of A.P. Indy definitely has the stamina and was taken back on the speed-favoring surface at Sunland in his last effort. He's won two of three at the 1 1/8-mile distance and guessing Mike Smith will have him closer to the pace on Saturday. He could be sitting on a big one and he's hard to dismiss at that price. The pick.

7 - Conquest Titan (Casse, Borel, 10-1). A lot of racing pundits have been high on this colt, who just hasn't delivered on the Derby trail to date.  In 35th place on the Leaderboard with 9 points, he desperately needs to succeed to make the Derby. He'll be trying his seventh different track in his last seven races. Not buying the hype.

8 - Bayern (Baffert, Stevens, 2-1). Son of Offlee Wild comes off an impressive allowance win in early February by over 15 lengths. Baffert swooped in to win this race and a Derby berth with Bodemeister two years ago, who ended up with the highest finish ever (second) in the Derby for a colt who never ran as a 2-year-old. Baffert and Bayern will hope to better that mark with a big effort on Saturday. Coming off an injury right into the fray is asking a lot of a lightly raced colt, so we're going to try and beat him at that price.

9 - Strong Mandate (Lukas, Saez, 9-2). Talented colt sits in 26the place on the Leaderboard with 11 points and will have to step up his game to qualify for a spot in Louisville. His sire is a two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner so he won't have any issues with the distance; questions persist about his consistency however.

Post Time Outlook: 1 - Commissioner; 2 - Tapiture; 3- Ride on Curlin; 4 - Strong Mandate

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.

Post Time: Derby trail heads west

By Gene Kershner

The Derby trail turns to the Great Race Place on Saturday afternoon with the 76th running of the $1 million Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby.  A talented field of eight horses will square off in the nationally televised race (NBC Sports Network, 5:30 p.m. ET) with 170 Kentucky Derby qualifying points at stake. The winner will take away 100 points, the second place finisher will earn 40 and the third (20) and fourth (10) place finishers will generate lesser amounts.

Three colts have been at the forefront of the California 3-year-old racing scene and they will tee off against each other for the first time. California Chrome (6-5) is the morning line favorite and the San Felipe winner is the one to beat. He currently sits in 12th place in the Derby standings with 50 points.

Hoppertunity (3-1, 55 points), the Rebel winner at Oaklawn Park, comes back to California to get in his last prep before the Derby.  Mike Smith who was in the irons for the big win at Oaklawn gets the nod at Santa Anita from trainer Bob Baffert.

The horse that has the most at stake is Candy Boy (9-5, 10 points), who needs to finish first or second to secure a Derby berth. The Robert B. Lewis winner has been idle since early February and faces the pressure to perform on Saturday afternoon.

Here's a look at the field and our thoughts….ML odds, trainer and jockey in parenthesis.

1-Rprettyboyfloyd (20-1, Breuer, Bejarano). The son of Bluegrass Cat has yet to break his maiden in five career races and steps up to face the big boys. He's finished second in four of the five races and a beaten third in the Grade 2 San Vicente.  Adds blinkers and a top jockey, but not sure it's enough against these monsters.

2-Friendswith K Mill (20-1, O'Neill, Baze).  Flashy Bull colt also steps up into graded stakes company after winning a maiden claimer two back. Enough said. Pass.

3-Hoppertunity (3-1, Smith, Baffert). This well-traveled colt is about to run his third Derby trail race at a third different track.  His impressive win in the Rebel catapulted him into the Derby, so this race is just a tightener. Connections are lethal together, but not sure this is the target. Contender.

4-Big Tire (20-1, Glatt, Maldanado).  Hi name makes me think of 2008 Tampa Bay Derby winner, the late Big Truck, but this is a son of Candy Ride who broke his maiden last out for trainer Mark Glatt. Another horse making a big step up, but actually has the pedigree to go long as Giant's Causeway is his damsire. Worth a shot underneath in the exotics.

5-California Chrome (6-5, Sherman, Espinoza). A definitive win here could vault this son of Lucky Pulpit into the favorite's role at Churchill Downs. Ran a huge one winning by over 7 lengths in the San Felipe. He's been working sharply for trainer Art Sherman and is the one to beat tomorrow afternoon.

6-Candy Boy (9-5, Sadler, Stevens). The Lewis winner is desperate for points and this is likely his last chance to earn valuable points. He drew outside of California Chrome, so he'll be able to sit a stalking trip. Has the Hall of Famer in the saddle sports some solid workouts since his last race. Looks fit to pull the mild upset.

7-Schoolofhardrocks (10-1, Holmans, Talamo). Has some positives on his past performances in the workout area and running second off the layoff, second-time Lasix, but the lightly raced son of Rock Hard Ten appears to be overmatched in here. Would consider only in the superfecta slot.

8-Dublin Up (30-1, Miller, Desormeaux). Longest price in the field is in over his head in this race. Still a maiden who has yet to crack an exacta in four career races. Looking elsewhere.

Post Time Outlook: 1 -Candy Boy; 2-California Chrome and 3-Hoppertunity

Long shot: Big Tire

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.

Post Time: Mr. Sandman, cash me a ticket

By Gene Kershner 

Breakfast in Dubai is on tap tomorrow morning at Meydan Race Course as Dubai World Cup Day kicks off a spectacular weekend of thoroughbred racing that includes the Florida Derby (NBC Sports Network, 6:30 - 7:30 p.m. EDT) from Gulfstream Park and the Louisiana Derby from the Fair Grounds on Saturday evening.  The Meydan Race Course is home to some of the richest races of the year.  Free past performances for the Dubai races can be found here.  The Dubai World Cup will be part of a Fox Sports 1 telecast between 1 - 2:30 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.

Here's the lineup and a bit of commentary, a synopsis of the U.S. horses running, so fill up your bowl with some Lucky Charms and start handicapping…

Race 4: (10:25 a.m. EDT) Group 2 UAE Derby. Run over 1 3/16-mile on the Tapeta, for $2 million large. This race is also part of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, offering the winner 100 points and a gate in the Derby. Last year's winner Lines of Battle finished 11th in Kentucky Derby 139. The race has drawn 12 three-year-olds, including several from the States. 

The best known horse in the race is 5-Giovanni Boldini (USA) (5-2) a horse I loved in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. He has two wins on all-weather surfaces. The son of War Front will stretch out to his longest distance in this one and should be part of the mix for trainer Aidan O'Brien and jockey Ryan Moore. 9-Asmar (IRE) (6-1) has a win at the distance and on the Tapeta at Meydan.  4-Long John (AUS) (3-1) is a son of Street Cry and should be able to handle the distance and also has an impressive win over the surface.

Race 5: (11:03 a.m. EDT) Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint. A 5-furlong turf sprint with a purse of a cool $1 million dollars has attracted 12 runners, including U.S. horse 7-Berlino de Tiger (30-1), who looks to be overmatched in this group. 8-Amber Sky (AUS) (8-1) looks like a solid turf sprinter coming off an impressive Group 1 win at Sha Tin in Hong Kong. 6-Hamza (IRE) (15-1) ships in and is a classy horse that should be in the mix. 12-Shea Shea (SAF) is no stranger to the Meydan turf course and is a win threat at even money odds. 

Race 6: (11:41 a.m. EDT) Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen Classic. A 6-furlong sprint on the Tapeta surface, with a purse of two big bills, encompasses a field of 13 horses. Don’t confuse this race with the Shabeen, an old Buffalo bar and grill on Delaware Avenue, very popular on and around March 17 back in the day. Old war horse and returning defending champ 5-Reynaldothewizard (USA) (5-2) will attempt back to back victories in the Shaheen. 12-Rich Tapestry (IRE) (4-1), a 6-year-old son of Holy Roman Emperor defeated the 'wizard last out in a Group 3 race at Meydan. A horse going from Turf to AW is 4-Sterling City (AUS) (20-1) who has had some recent success at Sha Tin and against tough competition is a long shot worth considering. 

Race 7: (12:39 p.m. EDT) Grade 1 Dubai Duty Free. A nice field of 13 horses will be going 1 1/8-miles on the Meydan turf course for $5 million. 10-Dank (GB) (7-2), the winner of the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf takes on the boys in the Duty Free and should be the one to beat. It'll be her first effort off the layoff, but the 5-year-old by Dansili is a classy mare. She'll be challenged by the 4-year-old colt 11-Vercingetroix (SAF) (5-1) who is undefeated in six career races. This is shaping to be a huge race as 4-The Fugue (GB) (3-1), second place finisher in the Breeders' Cup Turf will also try her fortunes cutting back in distance for trainer John Gosden and top jockey William Buick. 

Race 8: (1:17 p.m. EDT) Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic. A large field of 15 runners will run 1 1/2-miles on the turf for $5 million large.  West Point Thoroughbreds and U.S. hopeful 11-Twilight Eclipse (USA) (20-1) comes off back-to-back graded stakes for trainer Tom Albertrani. He finished sixth in the BC Turf, by just over two lengths to 4-Magician (IRE) (3-1), who will be making his 2014 debut in the Sheema as the favorite.  Ryan Moore is aboard the Deep Impact mare 12-Gentildonna (JPN) (4-1) who finished second in last year's edition. Another Japanese entry, 3-Denim and Ruby (JPN) (8-1) finished a nose behind Gentildonna in the Japan Cup and should be a nice price horse in here. Godolphin will send out 1-Excellent Result (IRE) (15-1) winner of his last two for trainer Saeed bin Suroor. Frankie Dettori will be in the irons on 10-Dubday (GB) (20-1) who ships in after winning three straight Group 1 races in Great Britain. 

Race 9: (2:05 p.m. EDT) Dubai World Cup. Run at the classic 1 1/4-mile distance on the Tapeta for $10 million. Yes, you read that correctly, $10 million. 16-Ron The Greek (USA) (5-1) sold after last year's 6-year-old season  to Saudi Arabian interests along with 10-Surfer (USA) (30-1), a Distorted Humor gelding are the two US-bred horses vying for the biggest purse of the race year. It will be Ron the Greek's first race on the Meydan Tapeta, a surface that not many US dirt horses have had much luck on since Curlin's win in the 2008 World Cup. He drew the far outside post and will have some work to do if he is to cash a big check. 

Three horses I favor are 1-Prince Bishop (IRE) (10-1), 11-Hokko Tarumae (JPN) (12-1) and 4-Akeed Mofeed (GB) (10-1), all who have won multiple times at the Classic distance . Another horse that you can't discount due to the connections and breeding is 12-Ruler of the World (IRE) (9-2) by Galileo out of a Kingmambo mare, the slight morning line favorite. This race looks wide open and a great betting opportunity. 

You can also check out the Dubai Race Night website for full World Cup day analysis on each race.

Saturday is a terrific day of racing, be sure to check out tomorrow's print edition for previews of the huge Derby prep races from Florida and Louisiana. 

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and tweets @EquiSpace.

Post Time: Spiraling down the Derby trail

By Gene Kershner 

This weekend's major prep race is the Grade 3 Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park in Florence, Kentucky just outside of Cincinnati proper which has attracted 12 hopeful colts. The 1 1/8 mile race is one of the last two races of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series worth 50-20-10-5 points to the top four finishers. The other final prep at this point level is the Sunland Derby in New Mexico on Sunday.

The Spiral is run on the polytrack at Turfway and produced 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, breaking a drought of 18 years between Derby winners. Lil E. Tee won the 1992 version of the Spiral with Pat Day aboard. The race has produced some well known victors aside from those two including Hard Spun (2007), Flower Alley (2005), Stephen Got Even (1999), and Summer Squall (1990).

Let's take a look at the field (jockey, trainer, odds in parenthesis)…

1 - Big Bazinga (Contreras, Vassilieva, 30-1). Long shot who faltered badly in the Holy Bull but redeemed himself in an optional claimer at Gulfstream returns to the friendly confines of polytrack. Sports a couple decent efforts at Woodbine last fall and could outrun his odds.

2 - Asserting Bear (Rocco, Jr., Baker, 12-1). Another Woodbine shipper threatened momentarily at Tampa in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis finishing 3 3/4-lengths behind Vinceremos. The Ontario-bred colt has a win at the distance in the Coronation Futurity at Woodbine in November and could be a nice price on Saturday afternoon.

3 - Poker Player (Hill, Catalano, 5-1). The son of Harlan's Holiday ran second in the local prep as the favorite after finishing eighth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf at Santa Anita. Has a graded stake win coming from off the pace at Keeneland on the polytrack last fall in the Grade 3 Bourbon. Contender.

4 - Tamarando (Baze, Hollendorfer, 3-1). Morning line favorite won the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate on a Tapeta surface and ships in for jockey/trainer connections winning at a 44 percent clip over the past 60 days. The Bertrando colt will be looking to add to his current Derby point total of 12 on Saturday. The colt to beat.

5 - Coastline (Stewart, Casse, 8-1). Ships over from Oaklawn where he fared poorly in the Southwest Stakes after a third place performance in the Smarty Jones. Appears to be more of a miler based on his pedigree, has a sharp workout for Casse who is winning at a 24 percent clip going dirt to synthetic. Sometimes milers can steal a 9-furlong race.  He broke his maiden on poly at Keeneland. Would be a minor upset.

6 - Smart Cover (Lanerie, Romans, 20-1). Son of Any Given Saturday will try and go turf to synthetic for the first time. Past efforts include a second place finish ahead of the highly regarded Tapiture in the Grade 3 Iroquois at Churchill. Stranger things have happened and Romans is capable of big wins in Kentucky.

7 - All Tied Up (Saez, Pletcher, 12-1). A Pletcher colt that's 12-1 on the Derby trail? Pedigree doesn't exactly scream router, but Todd Terrific knows how to have them ready and is a whopping 31 percent turf to all-weather surfaces. This colt has not run on any surface other than turf in his seven race career. Will swallow hard and pass.

8 - Solitary Ranger (Geroux, Catalano, 6-1). Won the local prep over the surface and has only missed the board once in five tries on the fake stuff. He won the prep handily by four lengths and could continue to improve for trainer Wayne Catalano who worked him six furlongs last time out so he's likely very tight and ready to roll. Win threat.

9 - Almost Famous (Borel, Byrne, 6-1). His past performance lines read like a rollercoaster, so not sure which colt is going to show up on Saturday. I'm going to bet against on Saturday due to his lack of consistency and first try on the polytrack.

10 - Harry's Holiday (Napranik, Maker, 20-1). Rosie ships in the ride for Maker's horse that finished third in the local prep. He would need to take a big step forward in this company to make any noise. There are others more likely and thinking he'd be more successful at shorter distances off first glance.

11 - We Miss Artie (Velazquez, Pletcher, 4-1). Pletcher hopeful desperate for Derby points takes the polytrack route. Absolutely has a shot in here coming in third off the layoff and returning to a surface that may be kinder to him than dirt. The Ramseys won the 2010 Spiral with a similar horse, and Johnny V comes in to ride. Should hit the board.

12 - Arctic Slope (Jimenez, McPeek, 30-1). Chestnut colt comes off a long layoff and jumps right into the fire. Has only one win in five tries and speed figures don't indicate he'll threaten the classier horses. Sitting this one out.

Post Time Outlook: 1-We Miss Artie; 2 - Solitary Ranger; 3 - Tamarando

Long shot play: Asserting Bear

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.

Post Time: Derby trail served Buffalo-style

By Gene Kershner 

It's that time of the year when we evaluate the current Kentucky Derby contenders Buffalo-style by applying just the right sauce in judging whether each colt is hot, medium or mild on this year's Derby trail. 

There are three races remaining in the 50-20-10-5 leg of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, including this weekend's Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. After next weekend's races at Turfway Park and Sunland Park, the final seven races of the Series will offer the top four finishers 100-40-20-10 points, respectively. 

Several horses have already fallen off the trail most notably, Top Billing, third place finisher in the Fountain of Youth. Bayern, a top contender from Southern California scratched out of last weekend's San Felipe due to a quarter bruise and it is uncertain whether he will compete in the Santa Anita Derby or at Oaklawn.  Shared Belief, owned in part by Jim Rome's Jungle Racing, hasn't recorded a workout since January and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer confirmed yesterday that he is off the Derby trail due to foot ailments.

Keeping with our mid-March tradition of looking at the current leaders in the chase for the first leg of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, let's check out the 3-year-old colts that are creating a buzz on the Derby trail. In concert with prior years, the colts will be sorted Buffalo-style: Hot, Medium and Mild. 

Hot.  Two horses that are gaining steam as the hot horses have had good fortune in New York and Florida, at the Big A and Gulfstream Park, respectively. 

Samraat,  the son of Noble Causeway out of an Indian Charlie dam, looks to have earned his way into the Derby via his recent win in the Grade 2 Gotham where he defeated rival Uncle Sigh (24 points, t-7th) for the second straight time. Look for him next in the Wood Memorial in early April at Aqueduct. He appears to have the pedigree to capture the Classic distance of a mile and a quarter and has impressed so far in reaching the top of the points standings with 60 points. 

Heading down the coastline to sunny Florida, the Holy Bull winner, Cairo Prince appears to be the best of the Gulfstream colts after Top Billing's defection due to injury. He will take on the top two finishers in the Fountain of Youth in two weeks in the Florida Derby.  The son of Pioneerof the Nile, the second place finisher to long shot Mine That Bird in the 2009 Derby, still needs valuable Derby points. He sits in 14th place with 14 points for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who has never saddled a Derby winner. 

Medium. Our medium horses are those colts quietly moving up the ladder with decent, but not mesmerizing performances in the Derby prep races to date. 

A  horse that meets our "medium" category had the perfect trip in winning last weekend's San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park.  California Chrome (50 pts, 5th place), sired by Lucky Pulpit, grabbed the rail and pulled away from contenders Midnight Hawk and Kristo to win easily. His grand sire Pulpit won the Blue Grass and the Fountain of Youth in 1997, finishing fourth in the Kentucky Derby, so there is some indicators in his bloodlines, although he has his doubters out there due to his damline. A much anticipated matchup with Robert B. Lewis winner Candy Boy awaits him in the Santa Anita Derby on Apr. 5.

We'll see our other medium colt this weekend, who could vault into "hot" territory with a win in the Rebel. Tapiture has earned points in each of his last three races, garnering 22 points in winning the Kentucky Jockey Club and Southwest Stakes and finishing third in the Iroquois. A top four finish should get him enough points to qualify for the Run for the Roses. He shares the same grand sire as California Chrome, but was sired by Tapit, winner of the 2004 Wood Memorial, who finished a disappointing 9th in the Derby that same year. 

Mild. The horses fitting the mild category are those that will probably qualify for a spot, but are rather bland at the moment, requiring additional spices and seasoning. 

Staying completely under the radar is a horse who will be challenging Taptiture this weekend at Oaklawn in the Rebel. Strong Mandate, trained by the venerable D. Wayne Lukas who stormed back onto the Triple Crown scene last year with Oxbow, is a horse with huge upside if he stays healthy. With only 6 points currently he'll need strong performances in either the Rebel or the Arkansas Derby to get into the gate on the First Saturday in May. Sired by the great Tiznow, a two-time Breeders' Cup Classic champion, he has the staying power to be there on Derby day as long as he qualifies. 

Rounding out our mild category is Starlight Racing's Intense Holiday trained by the omnipresent Todd Pletcher. After a ho-hum third place finish behind Cairo Prince in the Holy Bull, he captured my attention with a win in the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds vaulting him to top portion of the leaderboard, where he currently sits in second with 53 points. The son of Harlan's Holiday, a 7th place finisher in the 2002 Derby, should show up next in the Louisiana Derby in two weeks. 

Suicide.  If I had to tag a horse in this category it would be Wildcat Red, who backed up his Hutcheson win by winning the Fountain of Youth going gate-to-wire in blazing fractions holding off General a Rod. With a sprinter's pedigree, he may be your leader around the clubhouse turn at Churchill Downs in May setting the early pace. The 50 points he earned at Gulfstream should be enough to qualify for the big race.

Let's grab some bleu cheese, your favorite sauce and settle in for some great Derby preps over the next few weeks. 

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.

Post Time: Big Cap steals limelight for a weekend

By Gene Kershner 

It's not too often that the handicap division steals the spotlight from the 3-year-olds on the Derby trail at this time of the year. On Saturday afternoon the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap at Santa Anita will do just that when three of the biggest names in racing will go head to head.

Willis Horton, owner of Will Take Charge (2-1), told the national racing media on Tuesday afternoon that "it could be the race of a lifetime to see." Last year's three-year-old Eclipse winner will get a rematch on national television Saturday evening with Breeders' Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man (9-5), in the race known as the Big Cap on Fox Sports 1 at 7 p.m. ET.

Not part of the original schedule of "The Jockey Club Tour on Fox," the Big Cap became a must-see once the two top finishers in last year's $5 million Classic decided to head west for round two. Adding to the drama will be hometown hero Game On Dude (5-2), who will be seeking a record third Big Cap win after winning the 2011 and 2013 editions.

Dude's trainer Bob Baffert is as excited as most racing fans for Saturday's Big Cap. "When you win a big race on a big day like that when the stands are pretty full and a lot of cheering and it’s loud, really it’s a good feeling.  That, to me, that’s the good feeling story, when you see a lot of people out and they’re cheering for home and you can hear the roar of the crowd, there’s nothing better feeling than that.  Winning—when you win one of those—under those circumstances, that’s what makes racing so exciting," he told the national racing media earlier in the week.

"It’s like a heavy weight title fight. Before, if it’s the same horses in California running it probably doesn’t get that much attention, but anytime you have a horse that ships in like Mucho Macho Man with the best handicap horses in the same race, that’s what brings the attention because you’ve got your Breeders’ Cup winner, you’ve got the champion three-year-old, it’s a no brainer," said Baffert.

The Southern California-based trainer is hoping for a pace scenario that will fit Game On Dude.
"We have to give him a chance and, you know, it’s got to be a reasonable pace.  It can’t be a ridiculous pace but, I mean, those races are always fast anyway, so I’m sure he’ll be going pretty fast there.  But, you know, it has to unfold the right way for him and if it does, then he’s very effective," he said.

The Derby trail will feature big races on both coasts with 50 points at stake for the winners. The Tampa Bay Derby, run at 1 1/16 miles, will feature several Ontario-bred horses including Coltimus Prime, trained by Justin Nixon, the Mark Casse-trained Matador and Asserting Bear conditioned by Reade Baker. We could be seeing a Queen's Plate horse emerge from Tampa Bay Downs this weekend. All three of the Ontario-bred entrants are Canadian Triple Crown nominees, although Casse admits Matador runs his best on dirt.

"Our feeling is that Matador is superior on the dirt.  We feel like he trains much better on the dirt than he ever did the synthetic and that was our reason for taking him to the Sam Davis, because if you look at his previous form, you could hardly believe that he deserved to go to the Sam Davis.  We need him to step up and continue to run better on the dirt for him to be considered a good horse.  The question is, are we going to go back to the Queen’s Plate? We’ll have to see.  He’ll have to show me more on the synthetic," Casse explained to the national racing media. 

The horse to beat in Tampa, however, is also trained by Casse, winning trainer of the last two Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie, and that colt is Conquest Titan. Casse moved him from Gulfstream Park to Tampa due to the colt's late running style that would not fair well on the speed-favoring drag strip at Gulfstream. A style that Casse changed to after his disappointing finish in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

"We went back to Churchill Downs after the Breeders’ Cup and said, look, we’ve got to do something different, and so we started taking him back and then relaxing him in his works and, you know, it shows in his chart there at Churchill that he broke slow, but that was my plan and we told [jockey] Shaun [Bridgmohan], 'Just take him back, get him to relax and try to come with one big run,' and it worked.  It doesn’t happen very often, but it worked that time," said Casse.

On the Big Cap undercard is the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes, also at 1 1/16 miles, that will showcase the first race in a Derby point race for the impressive Bayern, trained by Baffert. The lightly raced son of Offlee Wild has only two career starts, both wins at Santa Anita, the latter an allowance win by 15 lengths over highly-regarded Tap It Rich.

Not surprisingly, Baffert has the second best horse in the race on paper, Midnight Hawk, who currently sits in 13th on the Derby points list with 12. He finished a well beaten third to Candy Boy in the Robert B. Lewis last week after winning the Sham Stakes in January.

Jockey Gary Stevens may have a tough decision before Derby day if Bayern continues to show his talents on the track. He also rode Candy Boy in the Robert B. Lewis, another talented colt who should have enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. "He’s actually shown me more in his last two workouts after that race than he did in that actual race.  He showed me some versatility and the thing about Bayern, he’s got a great mind and he’s going in the right direction, and we’ll see what happens on the weekend, but I expect a big performance from him.  I don’t see any reason he won’t with what I’ve seen in the mornings the last two times I’ve been on him," said the Hall of Fame jockey.

[UPDATE 4:00 p.m. Friday: Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert announced on his Twitter account that 3-year-old colt Bayern is scratched from Saturday's San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita with an injury.]

It's as big a weekend in horse racing as you'll find during the month of March.

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.


Post Time: Friday racing notebook

By Gene Kershner

The blog is back this weekend after taking a one-week hiatus due to the focus on last week's print article as we kicked off the Derby trail on TBN. I was keen on both General a Rod (second in Fountain of Youth) and Intense Holiday (Risen Star winner), but disappointed in Hoppertunity's performance in the Risen Star.  Looks like its back to the drawing board for trainer Bob Baffert.

This weekend the Derby trail finds it way back to New York and Aqueduct Racetrack for the Gotham Stakes, a Grade 3 race over 1 1/6 miles on the Big A's inner dirt track.

Some noteworthy goings on over the thoroughbred racing landscape…

- The Gotham features a Withers rematch between 1A-Samraat (5/2), who is running in a coupled entry, and 4-Uncle Sigh (3-1). Both horses are trained by NY-based trainers, Samraat by Richard Violette, Jr. and Uncle Sigh by Gary Contessa. It would be nice to see one of those fine trainers have a horse in the gate on the First Saturday in May.

- I'm leaning towards 8-Extrasexyhipzster (4-1), trained by Michael Trombetta. He's coming off two non-graded stakes wins, one an impressive win on the inner in December in the $100K Don Rickles. I think he handles the additional distance and storms onto the Derby scene.

- Hard to believe a Pletcher-trained horse on the Derby trail has a morning line of 10-1, but 10-Harpoon, who was supposedly being pointed at the Tampa Bay Derby, was shipped back north to run in this spot. Maybe it's the outside post that had morning line maker Eric Donovan assigning a higher number. His nose loss to Vinceremos in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis in Tampa earlier in the month at the same distance warrants him a closer look.

- Good news that Fox Sports 1 has added the Santa Anita Handicap (aka the Big Cap) to its lineup and will televise the big race next weekend. The Big Cap will feature a Breeders' Cup Classic rematch between Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge, not to mention Game On Dude, who will be looking to avenge his disappointing loss last November. The $750,000 Grade 1 race that was first run in 1935 should set the stage for an exciting year in the handicap division.

- Speaking of television, Horseplayers, the reality show on the Esquire Network, is moving from Tuesdays to Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. ET starting on Mar. 5. It's one you won't want to miss as the tournament scene shifts to Upstate New York and the Saratoga Race Course.

- Volume II of the website's Derby Dozen was released on Wednesday and Top Billing has just that in this week's list. Each panelist's picks can be found at this link, including mine and another Western New York handicapper who goes by the moniker, The Turk.

- Pool 3 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager is open and runs through Saturday at 6 p.m.

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.

Post Time: Valentine's day racing notebook

By Gene Kershner

Let's take a little tour around the thoroughbred racing world after last weekend's big day at Gulfstream Park…

Lea and Lochte were the big winners on the debut broadcast of the Jockey Club Tour on Fox on Sunday. The initial show was heavy on handicapping with TVG's Simon Bray and Greg Wolf and NYRA's Andy Serling and Richard Migliore all part of the show. Overall, the show was a win for racing anytime you can showcase the sport.  The next broadcast on Fox Sports 1 will be the $10 million Dubai World Cup from Meydan Racecourse in late March.

- I thought Will Take Charge gave a valiant effort finishing second in the Donn on a track that certainly doesn't assist his late running style including the short stretch. He will be a force to be reckoned with down the line.

- Good news for the border oval last week as Ontario Racing Commission announced that there will be a full 2014 racing system at Fort Erie Race Track. The Commission notified Ontario Premier Wynne that the funding has been secured for the meet scheduled to start sometime in the spring of 2014.

- The 10-4-2-1 points phase of the Road to the Kentucky Derby will wrap up this weekend with races at Golden Gate (El Camino Real Derby) on Saturday and at Oaklawn (Southwest Stakes) on President's Day Monday.  The Southwest will include solid Derby contenders Strong Mandate, Ride on Curlin and Tapiture.

- Things will start to heat up next weekend with the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream which should have a loaded field including Top Billing, Medal Count, Commissioner, Conquest Titan and We Miss Artie to name a few. This race has typically been a big steppingstone for the winner.  The points increase to 50-20-10-5 for the first four finishers. So a win more than likely puts you in the Derby gate.

- Finger Lakes-based trainer Jeremiah Englehart will send Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies champion Ria Antonia into the Rachel Alexandra Stakes at the Fair Grounds next weekend. Her connections had considered next weekend's Risen Star Stakes against the boys but thought otherwise so she will head down the road to the Kentucky Oaks on the first Friday in May.

- The fifth annual Derby Dozen poll has issued the initial 2014 poll, of which I am a panelist. Cairo Prince, winner of the Holy Bull, heads volume I of the poll which is released every three weeks up through the Derby draw.

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.

Post Time: Gonzalez sends River Seven against stacked Donn field

By Gene Kershner

Trainer Nick Gonzalez stood in the winner's circle for the first time in a graded stake at Churchill Downs last November and will look to duplicate that feat at Gulfstream Park on Sunday. He'll enter his star 4-year-old River Seven into the $500,000 Grade 1 Donn Handicap at 1 1/8 miles, which will be the debut broadcast on the new Fox Sports 1 series, "The Jockey Club Tour on Fox." 

The field for the 59th edition of the Donn is stacked with formidable contenders including 3-year-old champion Will Take Charge, who was assigned the highweight of 123 pounds. Revolutionary, a fixture on last year's triple crown trail will make his first start of 2014, last running in the Belmont Stakes after finishing third in the Derby. 

Gonzalez is more than excited in attempting to win a fourth straight stakes race with River Seven, who set the Gulfstream track record for 1 1/16 miles in the $100,000 Harlan's Holiday Stakes going 1.41.73. The track record was set during his second career start on dirt, his first coming in last year's Prince of Wales Stakes at nearby Fort Erie where he finished second to Uncaptured, who drew the rail on Sunday for trainer Mark Casse. 

The field of 11 will also include Breeders' Cup Classic runner-up Will Take Charge trained by the venerable D. Wayne Lukas. "There was supposed to be a whole pile of them last week and then when Wayne Lukas showed up with WTC, it scared a few off," said Gonzalez by phone from Florida on Wednesday.

The defending champion trainer of last year's Queen's Plate winner Midnight Aria isn't scared of taking on the big boys. "That's what you get in those kinds of races, if you're thinking or expecting anything less than a field like that you're just kidding yourself anyways.  You just have to be prepared for the big show when you're entered in a half million dollar Grade 1 race."

River Seven will receive a seven pound weight break from Will Take Charge and three from Revolutionary, which should help his cause. "The weights seemed kind of peculiar to me at first, but I guess when you start at the highweight at 123 and go down that's a realistic weight for River I guess so. We're happy with it," said Gonzalez.

Joe Rocco, Jr., who was aboard during the track record ride in the Harlan's Holiday, will ride River Seven on Sunday. Gonzalez is confident he will give him the best chance to extend his winning streak to four. "He's had three different riders on his last three stakes wins and he's not one of those horses where you have to give him a lot of instructions to anyone who rides him. He's got tracking speed, it's one of those things where you have a smart rider who knows the pace, you just have to figure it out once you go a half a mile and take it from there," said the Fort Erie-based trainer.

River Seven's last breeze was a successful one on Sunday morning and he had a chance encounter with two-time Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf champion Groupie Doll. "They both breezed at the same time Sunday morning. It was funny they were walking back to the barns after their workouts, it was very cool to see them side by side," he said. 

"It's going to be a big day with Groupie Doll running and making her last start in the Hurricane Bertie. It would be great to see a champ like that go out with a win," said Gonzalez.

The Hurricane Bertie and the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap will both be a part of the Fox broadcast on Sunday afternoon at 5:00 p.m. ET.

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.

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About Sports, Ink

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.