The contenders are beginning to sift into smaller clumps now. With the top three-year-olds in the four points of the country sizing each other up, we've come to learn quite a bit about a few, and know enough about others to realize we don't know them at all. How good is Haynesfield? Can the California horses handle the dirt? Will Stardom Bound be able to take on the boys? This Saturday, some of the questions will be answered in two different races on either sides of the nation.
Aqueduct's Gotham Stakes, run over traditional dirt, will feature a field of horses who have many tests to overcome. The homebred Haynesfield has never faced competition worth crooning about, but has won three ungraded races in a row; he may very well find himself in hot water when faced with the speedy Mr. Fantasy, a lightly-raced colt who has won his two lifetime races by a combined margin of 19 lengths. The Gotham will be Mr. Fantasy's first foray into graded stakes competition, but he has already raced at the 1 1/16-mile distance of the Grade III Gotham; having prior experience on the inner track at Aqueduct will be in these New York-breds' favor.
Then there's the challenger in post position number eight, from sunny California, one I Want Revenge. You might remember his battle to the wire with the highly-regarded Pioneer of the Nile in last year's Cashcall Futurity, where I Want Revenge was beaten by a nose. In his last outing against the same rival, I Want Revenge finished third to him and Papa Clem in the Robert Lewis Stakes. Why the sudden change in scenery? According to the colt's trainer, Jeff Mullins, it's because Joe Talamo thinks I Want Revenge would make a better dirt horse. Talamo was on board the colt for the Robert Lewis Stakes and felt the horse wasn't handling the surface. If it's true I Want Revenge would make a better dirt horse, the other contenders better look out-the son of Stephen Got Even has never finished out of the money. What's more, he comes from off-the-pace and won't be caught up in a speed duel like Haynesfield and Mr. Fantasy could; the two have drawn post positions directly beside each other and both possess early speed.
Believe it or not, none of the aforementioned horses is the morning-line favorite. That honor goes to Imperial Council, who really has no credentials besides a maiden and an allowance win; he's never gone over seven furlongs, so the Gotham will be a test of stamina and class for him. He's by blossoming sire Empire Maker, the winner of the 2003 Belmont Stakes, so he's got the potential in his genes. But Imperial Council has a lot to accomplish in the Gotham, and I predict his odds will grow as I Want Revenge is bet down. Other horses of note in the nine-horse field are Axel Foley (the other California shipper), Masala, and Naos.
Over in California, Saturday is Big Cap Day: the biggest race for Santa Anita's season, the Grade I $1 million Santa Anita Handicap. And who should be on the undercard to this mind-boggling race than Stardom Bound in the Santa Anita Oaks. For fillies, the Santa Anita Oaks is really a prep for the Kentucky Oaks. But, Stardom Bound has bigger fish to fry, and might have a date with the boys in the Santa Anita Derby should she impress in this race. As good as she's proven to be, there is no reason Stardom Bound shouldn't be considered a top-notch contender for the Kentucky Derby. The way she runs her race here will define how competitive she will be against the boys for the first time, or count her out as a Derby contender completely.
Stardom Bound will be facing nine others in the Grade I Santa Anita Oaks, including Beltene, Hooh Why, Will O Way, and Burg Berg. Beltene has the opposite running style of Stardom Bound, in that she is a front-runner, while Stardom likes to lope along at the back of the back until the final turn. Beltene is undefeated in three starts and was last seen winning the Sunshine Millions Oaks by a head over Hooh Why going at six furlongs. Never having raced around two turns, Beltene is going to have her hands full with this larger field, but she is a game filly and may have the best chance at posing the upset.
Hooh Why enters the race as another filly to watch; though she's not yet won a stakes race, she's only been out of the money once in eight starts and was beaten only by a head by the highly-regarded Patena in the 1 1/16-mile Display Stakes at Woodbine. Her last couple of races has been shortened up from that distance (six furlongs), so maybe the distance is what Hooh Why needs. Another filly who's prepped for the Santa Anita Oaks is Will O Way, who won the California Oaks on January 31 at the same distance. She's won three of seven starts, and should not be overlooked.
For interest's sake, you might want to take a look at the maiden special weight at Gulfstream on Saturday. Race 8 will feature the return of Barbaro's full-brother Nicanor, who is trying to make right his last effort, where he grabbed a quarter coming out of the starting gate and was eased to finish tenth. Edgar Prado will not be riding him this time, as most of the country's top jockeys will be saddling their mounts over in Santa Anita for the Big Cap.
Speaking of the Big Cap, there couldn't be a wider field for bettors — but it's not due to the lack of talent, it's from the abundance of it. The field of 14 includes such big-name stars as Einstein, Cowboy Cal, Matto Mondo, Champs Elysees, Colonel John, and Court Vision. Though I'd love it if Einstein could pull off a Grade I on synthetics, I have to say Matto Mondo looked like a picture of excellence winning the Thunder Road Handicap off the turf on February 7.
The Grade III Gotham Stakes will be aired live on HRTV. Post time is scheduled for 4:18pm ET.
Nicanor will attempt to break his maiden the second time around in Race 8 at Gulfstream. The race will be aired live on HRTV and post time is slated for roughly 4:43pm ET.
The Grade I Santa Anita Oaks will be broadcast live on HRTV and TVG. Post time is slated for approximately 3:07pm PT.
The Grade I Santa Anita Handicap will be aired live on HRTV and TVG. Post time is scheduled for approximately 4:37pm PT.