Congested Road To Kentucky Derby Ramps Up With Three Saturday Preps


Bettors Face Deep Fields At Tampa Bay And Santa Anita Need To Beat Alpha In Withers At Aqueduct

Friday, February 3
Jim Hurley

January is behind us and with February comes the serious beginning of preparation for the 2012 Kentucky Derby.

On Saturday, from north to south and east to west 26 three-year olds are scheduled to discover if they have what it takes to continue on the Road To The 2012 Kentucky Derby.

As is the case every year, the Grade III Sam F. Davis will feature a full field. Eleven want-to-prove-themselves youngsters will face the starter in the mile and a sixteenth test. Perennial winner Todd Pletcher has owned this race is recent years, winning with Brethren last year, Rule (2010), Any Given Saturday (2007) and Bluegrass Cat (2006). The fact that his 2012 entrant Ecabroni has only raced twice and will be facing a slew of opponents that have already won stakes races, yet has been installed as the 7-2 on the ML attests to Pletcher's historical impact on the race and the strength of this field.

Up north at Aqueduct, six hopefuls will face the unenviable task of attempting to upset three time winner and Grade I Stakes placed Alpha in the Grade III Withers Stakes which will be run at one mile around two turns over the Big A Inner Dirt Track.

Slightly later (6:05 PM Eastern - Race 6) a field of eight runners are set to leave the gate in the Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes. The mile and a sixteenth prep will feature a third battle between Liaison and Rousing Sermon, who battled within a length of each other twice in juvenile stakes races at Hollywood in 2011.

These races are the first of dozens that will separate the contenders from the pretenders along the way and on Saturday theses races will also present a handful of great wagering opportunities.

Wide Open Sam F. Davis A Bettor's Delight

The Sam F. Davis always shapes up as a great betting race, even with Pletcher's recent dominance and this year, despite the fact that his Smoke Glacken colt Ecabroni has been installed as the second favorite on the ML behind recent Gulfstream Park Derby winner Reveron, it is worth speculating that there are as many as 5 or 6 very live contenders in the field of 10 colts and 1 gelding. Let's take a look (from the rail out.)

State Of Play (4-1) - The Graham Motion trained son of War Front has worked forwardly for his 3-year old debut, but will have to prove himself anew as he was a disappointment in the BC Juvenile when last seen on the race track. He went into that race on an uptick with a debut MSW win and a follow-up victory in the With Anticipation Stakes (both races at Saratoga.) In addition it remains to be seen how the talented colt will respond to dirt as all three career races have come on turf. He does have the tactical speed to get position early but still needs to answer the surface change question. Alan Garcia takes over for Ramon Dominguez who is in New York to ride Alpha in the Withers.

Holy Highway (20-1) - Another turf to dirt runner, the Derek Ryan trained son of Holy Bull should handle the surface switch, but his last two wins were a 32K maiden claiming victory and an entry level allowance/optional claiming triumph in very slow time. Is stepping way up in class.

Battle Hardened (12-1) - Still a maiden after three career starts, but the Eddie Kenneally trained son of Giant's Causeway cannot be considered an automatic toss as his breeding begs respect and he has improved with each race. Solid series of breezes at Palm Meadows should have him tight. Sharp jock Julien Leparoux makes the trip from Gulfstream to ride.

Ecabroni(7-2) - Pletcher's last out MSW winner will be making his first start vs winners and first around two turns as he attempts to carry the speed he showed in both career starts a distance of ground. Regular rider Javier Castellano will be aboard and the colt will get the weight break (carries 116) given to non stakes winners. Indications are there is not a tremendous amount of early pace in this race, so he takes them as far as he goes.

Moroccan Brew (30-1) - Trainer Dennis ward has had a terrific Tampa Bay meet (35-9-7-3 as of Thursday) but given the slow times of his two maiden races as a juvenile and early departure from the 7 furlong Pasco Stakes here on January 14, one would think the connections knocked down a couple of stiff ones before they entered the son of Milwaukee Brew back in this one. Would be a major surprise.

Neck 'N Neck (5-1) - It took the Ian Wilkes trained son of Flower Alley four tries to break his maiden, but he has moved forward with his BRIS speed numbers in each race and showed good tactical speed in finishing second with steady rally in a mile entry level allowance/optional claimer at Gulfstream 27 days ago. ML appears a bit optimistic, but he does have a good finishing kick.

Fox Rules (30-1) - FOX might rule the gabfest air waves but looks to have little impact here. New York bred has faced this type of completion three times since breaking his maiden on turf vs restricted rivals at Saratoga last summer and has been running Rural Route back roads caliber races while many of his opponents were traveling the Super Highway. Nothing indicates he belongs in here.

Ravelo's Boy (15-1) - Well-seasoned son of multiple graded stakes winner Lawyer Ron will make his 12th career start (throw back to the days when young horses actually raced) but has only 2 wins and 2 thirds to show for all the efforts. Has been beaten handily twice by potential Tampa Bay Derby post time favorite Reveron and has shown few stretch run efforts necessary to outgun a number of better ones in here. Needs top effort to smell just a piece.

Burning Time (12-1) - Improving son of Burning Roma is another who exits the Pasco Stakes here on January 14. The David Fawkes trainee has managed a pair of wins and a pair of seconds from 8 career starts and made a quick move as he swerved out and closed significant ground in that 7 furlong local prep for this. Leading Tampa rider Leandro Goncalves will be aboard for the first time and this colt can be considered a possible dark horse exotic inclusion.

Reveron (3-1) - The speedy son of Songandaprayer needed three races to break his maiden, but once he discovered where the finish line was he didn't forget and has won three straight, including the Gulfstream Park Derby last time out. Ridden by Fernando Jara and trained by relatively unknown conditioner Agustin Bezara, the colt has improved with each bit of added distance and should be able to clear some of the slower runners to his inside by the time they hit the clubhouse turn. There doesn't seem to be an overabundance of speed in her so this guy should be in the thick of things when they hit the lane.

Prospective (5-1) - One of only three runners in here to have been over the Tampa Bay surface and the only one to have won here when he claimed the Pasco Stakes crown three weeks back, the Mark Casse trained son of Malibu Moon's only bad race in five career starts was when he was nowhere to be found when spun 4 wide on both turns in the BC Juvenile. Regular rider Luis Contreras will be aboard and the colt figures to be heard from in the late going.
The pools figure to be spread out in here so I'm looking for some solid WIN, EXACTA and TRIFECTA PAYOUT and will have all of those selections after 9:00 AM (E) on Saturday. This is just one of the three DERBY PREPS I'll be releasing Saturday and the 31 that are part of my LONG AND PROFITABLE DERBY ROAD PACKAGE

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Eight To Contest Robert B. Lewis

At Santa Anita the Grade II Robert B. Lewis drew a competitive field of eight prospects, five of which faced each other in California's premier Juvenile race, the Grade I Cash Call Futurity.

Run as Race 6 on the 10 race card in order to accommodate east coast bettors with a 6:05 PM (E) post time, the mile and a sixteenth contest will feature the third matchup of their careers between Cash Call Futurity winner Liaison and by-a-neck runner up Rousing Sermon. The former also beat the latter by a half length when they met in the Real Quiet Stakes (also at Hollywood) in their prior race. That being duly noted, this should very well shape up as more than a two horse race.

Again, let's take a look at the field from the rail out. Unfortunately, Santa Anita's egregiously late posting of their programs means the ML was not available as this was written.

Isn't He Clever - A three time winner from four lifetime starts, the Henry Dominguez trained son of Smarty Jones will be attempting a number of firsts in the Robert B. Lewis. First time vs graded stakes opponents, first around two turns and first at a major circuit. Fresh off the van from Sunland Park the colt exits a very speedy just off the pace triumph in the 110K 6 ½ furlong Riley Allison Futurity. Big test for a potentially talented colt that should at least have a say in the pace.

Liaison - The son of Indian Charlie is deserving of his likely favorite's role as he looks for his fourth straight victory and second straight graded stakes triumph. The Bob Baffert trainee makes his first start since winning the Cash Call Futurity and comes in off a series of (as Baffert usually does) very fast 6 furlong drills. The colt proved his versatility in winning the 6 horse Real Quiet Stakes and 13 horse Cash Call from virtually the same tracking position in each race. In each race he bid for the lead, claimed it and held on. If he picks up where he left off he'll be tough.

Groovin' Solo - Last out maiden breaker makes optimistic jump in class, but did this once before when the son of Bob And John was entered in the Cash Call as a maiden. The grade for that effort was an incomplete as the reins broke shortly into the race and the colt was pulled up. But two races prior to the Cash Call gave no indication of this kind of talent and maiden breaker in last was at best a step forward. Blinkers are added, but this is a stretch.

I'll have Another - After breaking his maiden vs special weights in his career debut at Hollywood last July the son of Flower Alley ran a strong second in the Grade II Best Pal at Del Mar Shipped east for the Grade I Hopeful at Saratoga the Doug O'Neill trainee never got a hold of the sloppy surface, raced 7 wide and retreated. Taken off the track after that race the colt has worked very well for his return and if he can carry his speed this distance could be a player right off the bench.

Sky Kingdom - Another of the Cash Call Futurity refugees, and another Bob Baffert entrant, the son of Empire Maker was most impressive in prepping for this with an easy win in an entry level allowance over the surface on January 12. The colt ran a bit greenly in the Cash Call, pulling early before being taken back but rallied smartly through the lane. If the last out win is any indication and the propensity of sons of Empire Maker to take some time to develop, the colt could be sitting on a big one and with Martin Garcia, who was aboard for the colt's two previous wins in the saddle, it could very well happen.

Rousing Sermon - For those who believe third time is the charm, backing this hard trying son of Lucky Pulpit is the move. The Jerry Hollendorfer trainee has turned in a series of very sharp works for his 3-year old debut and only needs less than a half length to catch his nemesis Liaison. On form there is no question that he will get the last run under regular rider Joe Talamo and you'll have a lot more going for you than just third time wishful thinking if you back the colt.

Empire Way - Another son of the late developing sire Empire Maker, another making his 3-year old debut, another refugee from last December's Cash Call and another with a solid late lick returning off a string of solid drills. The Mike Harrington trained colt was fanned 6 wide into the lane in the Cash Call yet never spit the bit and was forced out when attempting to rally in the Hollywood Prevue prior to that. He has every reason to move forward and with some racing luck could move more forward than the odds might otherwise speculate. He could be a price maker in the exotics.

Chips All In - Four wins and a second from five lifetime starts is a pretty good resume even if the races might have been minor stakes endeavors. Trainer Jeff Mullins does not move horses up in class cavalierly so if the son of North Light is entered in here he must be considered. His versatility can't be questioned as he has won at three different distances at four different tracks and on synthetic dirt, natural dirt and grass. Another interesting prospect at a price.
The Robert B. Lewis is as tight an eight horse field as one could ask for as right now I am only able to discard a pair of runners. By Saturday morning I'll have done my final analysis, talked to my West Coast Network and will have the WIN, EXACTA and TRIFECTA selections for the race.

The Withers Looks Like An Alpha Bet...Is It That Easy?

Sometimes you have to look at a race with even more than tremendous discipline. A cursory glance at the seven horse field that makes up the Grade III Mile Withers Stakes at Aqueduct definitely sends a person into that dreaded position of deciding whether or not they should start and end with what appears to be an overwhelming favorite.

The colt under such scrutiny here is the Kiaran McLaughlin trained Alpha, a son of hot young sire Bernardini. 

Alpha was in complete control as with blinkers added he made his 3-year old debut a winning one in the Count Fleet Stakes, run over the Inner Dirt surface on January 7. It was a reminder of the promise he had shown when he ran second behind recently released Experimental High Weight assignment recipient Union Rags. His lone blemish was a well-beaten 11th place finish in the BC Juvenile after action fractious in the gate, breaking sluggishly and never getting involved.
Following the Count Fleet he took a short breather and returned with a solid best of fifteen 5 furlong breeze on Monday and by all appearances will be difficult to beat if on his best behavior.

Two competitors that tried him in the Count Fleet weren't so discouraged as to not try him again, so Speightcity and How Do I Win have signed back on.
One has to wonder if trainer Gary Contessa sees something in Speightcity that the rest of us don't. The son of BC Sprint Champ Speightstown has been well up the track in three stakes attempts, fading in the BC Juvenile, never getting involved in the Grade II Remsen and showing no interest after getting bumped slightly at the start to the Count Fleet. At least regular rider David Cohen hasn't gotten completely discouraged, so he returns to ride, but backing this guy will have to be done on faith.

How Do I Win turned in a much more credible performance in the Count Fleet. It was his first start since November, his first over the IDT and his first around two turns. So the fact that the son of Corinthian battled on the pace until the sixteenth pole before giving way bodes well for contention in here with any move forward. The Todd Pletcher trainee has worked in hand since the January 7 race and has to be considered a player.

Trainer Michael Trombetta ships up from Laurel with last out allowance winner Hakama. The son of First Samurai turned in a strong effort when he broke his maiden over the IDT going wire-to-wire in a mile and seventy yard MSW on December 10. He has turned in three sharp drills at his home based training center in Maryland. Regular rider Julien Pimintel makes the trip north to ride the colt.

Another who should have a front end and stretch say is the Richard Dutrow trained Swag Daddy. The New York Bred Scat Daddy colt leaves the restricted ranks in fine fettle, having won the Damon Runyon Stakes from off the pace and the Restrainor Stakes on the front end (each at a mile and seventy yards over the IDT) in his last two. He has shown great tactical speed, so turning back to a mile shouldn't be an issue and he must be considered when looking at upset possibilities.
Dale Romans is also at Aqueduct with a live upset possibility. The lightly raced son of Lemon Drop Kid, King Kid, will be making only his third career start, but his driving MSW win in his debut at Churchill Downs and pace pressing third place finish New Year's Day in the Gulfstream Park Derby give hints that he could be a good one. He is perfectly bred to get the mile distance and his third best of thirty six 5 furlong breeze in :59 4/5 at Gulfstream this past Saturday shows that he is still on his toes.

Tiger Walk is another Laurel shipper who comes north following a sharp effort in Maryland. The Ignacio Correas trained Tale Of The Cat colt had a huge late pace number when he made his dirt debut at Laurel a 7 ½ length winning one in an entry level allowance on December 14 and has turned in three straight bullets at 5, 7 and 4 furlongs in preparation for this.

What makes the Withers so interesting is that the obvious favorite, Alpha, will be prohibitive and the remainder of the field shapes up as being very close in potential. I'll let you know how to maximize the race on Saturday.

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