So you're an owner with a 3-year-old who isn't quite ready to try two turns in a graded stakes, but you would like to pick up some qualifying points toward the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1)--just in case stretching out to a classic distance could still be in the future.
Or you're a trainer with a sophomore who has shown talent on turf or synthetic surfaces, and you'd like to see how he stacks up against graded stakes competition and pick up some Derby qualifying points--just in case--before throwing in the added challenge of racing on dirt.
Well, this is the Road to the Kentucky Derby weekend for you.
Aqueduct Racetrack will host the $300,000 Gotham Stakes (G3) where eight 3-year-olds are expected to try the one-turn mile that offers qualifying points on a scale of 50-20-10-5 to the top four finishers. Five of the eight runners have yet to try two turns.
At Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky, 11 sophomores are expected to start in the $200,000 Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) at 1 1/8 miles on the synthetic surface. Six of the expected starters have never won on dirt, but that's not an issue in this Derby points race that offers 20-8-4-2 to the top four finishers.
Saturday's Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2) is a more standard points race (50-20-10-5) for this time of year at two turns on the dirt.
As for the Gotham and Jeff Ruby, both races fall on the calendar at a time that allows successful runners from this weekend's races to still try two turns on the dirt before committing to the Kentucky Derby. Based on past Derby points races, the 50 points earned by the Gotham winner will ensure that 3-year-old a spot in the Derby field, but he'll be able to stretch out, whether it be the 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G2) at Aqueduct or one of the other big Derby prep races.
In the Gotham, Instagrand, who won last year's six-furlong Best Pal Stakes (G2) at Del Mar, will stretch out to one mile--but stay at one turn--in his 3-year-old debut.
The 20 points earned by the Jeff Ruby winner would put that horse squarely on the Derby bubble, likely making it necessary to pick up some points in one of the final Derby prep races on dirt.
Mark Casse will send out Skywire for his stakes debut in the Jeff Ruby. The son of two-time classic winner Afleet Alex enters off wins on a synthetic track at Woodbine and an off-the-turf race on a sloppy Gulfstream Park surface. Casse noted that trainers often are still figuring out the best spots for their 3-year-olds this time of year.
"We had him in on the grass, and it came off and we said, 'Well, let's give it a shot,' and he ran well. I think the key to all that is--and anyone who tells you differently, that they know, is lying--you've got to give a horse a try (on dirt) because you never know. You just never know. He had trained well on the dirt or we wouldn't have run him on the dirt."
And while the long-range goal for Skywire is the Queen's Plate Stakes at Woodbine, the first leg of the Canadian Triple Crown, Casse's mindset going into the Jeff Ruby is probably similar to a number of trainers.
"If he runs really well Saturday, he could end up in the (grade 2 Toyota) Blue Grass (at Keeneland April 6)," Casse said. "He's 1-for-1 on the dirt, and he's 1-for-1 on the Tapeta."
For many, things could be a bit clearer after these two races Saturday.
Road to the Kentucky Derby points standings
Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race schedule