If you're a racing fan, you can't ask for much more than what is on tap Saturday: three important Kentucky Derby preps and the season debuts of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. The 3-year-old races will give us a much clearer picture of the top Derby contenders and set things up well for the final preps. As far as Rachel and Zenyatta, let's just hope they win and come out of the race in good order. The big prize in on April 9.
Let's take a deeper look at some of the action:
Tampa Bay Derby
This one is highlighted by the return of Super Saver, who established himself as a star in November when romping by five in the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill. The WinStar homebred makes his 3YO debut after a three and half month layoff. Todd Pletcher said he's working better than he ever has and though he won't be fully cranked for his return, will be ready to run a winning race.
Of course, I am looking forward to watching Odysseus in his stakes debut. I loved his 15-length allowance win over the same track last month; his turn of foot was visually impressive and his final time was just off the course record without being asked for much in the final furlong. This will be a big step up for the son of Malibu Moon, as he not only faces Super Saver, but also Schoolyard Dreams and Uptowncharlybrown, who both ran well in the San Davis last month.
I think this one boils down to Super Saver and Odysseus. They will be the two favorites so I won't get rich, but it's the way I see it. Super Saver draws inside of Odysseus and without much speed in here, I expect him to go to the front. Odysseus will likely track the leader and I expect both of them to separate approaching the second turn. From there, we'll see who is better.
Ramon Dominguez gets the mount on Super Saver, which is never a bad thing, but Rajiv Maragh is based in Florida and is no slouch. Odysseus has an edge in that he has a win over the track and has some seasoning this year. Super Saver obviously has a big class edge.
Odysseus in a minor upset. If he doesn't run as well as I think, I have some major adjusting to do in my next top 10.
Like the Tampa Bay Derby, a field of seven was drawn, but it looks to be a much more difficult race to handicap. There are four graded stakes winners in here, led by Caracortado, who is undefeated in five starts and is the likely favorite.
But strong cases can be made for four others: American Lion, who adds blinkers, Interactif, shipping in from Florida to try synthetics for the first time, Sidney's Candy, the San Vicente winner who stretches out to two turns for the first time, and Dave in Dixie, who should be flying at the end.
I don't have a strong opinion on this race, maybe I will as the week goes on. I will likely just watch and see what comes out of it. I will be hoping that Caracortado runs well again and Interactif finally stamps himself as a true Derby contender. I wouldn't be surprised at all if American Lion or Dave in Dixie won.
Interactif has a couple things going against him: he tries the Pro-Ride for the first time and his speed numbers are a little below most of these. But I'm going to give the slight nod to him anyway. At first glance, the decision to ship him to California to run over a surface he's never tried before is kind of odd, but Pletcher has mentioned more than once that the Pro-Ride plays more like turf than dirt. We know Interactif likes turf. More importantly, he gets a rider switch from Desormeaux to Bejarano, which means he'll probably get a better trip.
If Interactif doesn't run well, I think it will be between Caracortado and Dave in Dixie, just like it was in the Robert Lewis.
Maybe the best race of the three Derby preps. Lookin At Lucky tries dirt, Noble's Promise makes his 3YO debut, and Dublin tries to prove himself. Uh Oh Bango is also a threat.
Based on the Southwest I think Dublin is going to be my selection. He made up a ton of ground on the winner after breaking slowly and having a wide trip. It looks like he will benefit from extra distance. I like the rider switch to Cory Nakatani, who is having a very solid meet.
I like Noble's Promise too, but more so down the road. This is his first start on dirt and season debut. If he wins while beating Lookin At Lucky and Dublin, he is the real deal.
Speaking of Looking At Lucky, he is obviously the one to beat. But I'll let him prove it to me one more time before I admit he is the Derby favorite.
New Orleans Ladies
Except for her work on March 2 when she lacked focus, Rachel has looked good since returning to the track. Handpicked by Asmussen and Jackson, this is an ideal comeback spot for her return. She stays at a track and distance she likes and faces only four. She could be 1-9 or less.
No way I'm picking against her, but if she were to get upset and you want to play exotics, I would use Clear Sailing, a filly who has been razor sharp for local trainer Glenn Delahoussaye. Clear Sailing has won both of her starts this year at Fair Grounds. A lightly-raced Empire Maker filly, she is a $255,000 2-year-old purchase with a load of potential. She threw in another bullet work, this one on March 3 when going four furlongs in :48.23. Shane Sellers knows his way around Fair Grounds too.
If forced to play this race I would do a straight exacta with Rachel over Clear Sailing.
This should be a nice, comfortable spot for Zenyatta's return, as she returns to the track and distance where she won the Breeders' Cup Classic in November. She has looked very good in her works.
Zenyatta fans always have a little more to worry about in her races because of her running style, which requires a good trip into the lane and good timing by Mike Smith. But if she runs her race she will make it 15-for-15.
There are a pair of grade II winners in here--Pretty Unusual and Striking Dancer, who comes off a win in the La Canada on Feb. 14. Also back from that race is the runner-up, Gripsholm Castle, an English shipper who makes her second start in the U.S. and could improve, and the third-place finisher, Floating Heart.
If Zenyatta were to be upset I would take Gripsholm Castle, who won twice in three starts in England (at 1 1/4 and 1 5/16 miles on turf) and really seemed to run well in her first start on Pro-Ride. With two more works over the track and in her second start of the year, she could move up. If that happens, she poses a threat. She also gets a 15-pound weight break.
Floating Heart also intrigues me but I won't bet the race, just hope that Zenyatta wins and sets up the showdown we all want to see.
Don't forget to join me and Tom for the live blog on Friday at noon where we can discuss the races in more depth.
Good luck to all and enjoy the great weekend of racing. Who do you like?