When the calendar pages turn to March, and the days slowly count down to the final Saturday of the month, the annual anticipation for one of the greatest days in horse racing begins to build. It all starts halfway across the world, in Dubai, where the always-amazing Dubai World Cup program showcases top-class international competition over a variety of distances and surfaces. And just when the action in the desert is wrapping up, American race fans can turn their attention to their own tracks, which will play host to twelve excellent graded stakes races at Fair Grounds, Gulfstream Park, and Santa Anita. Those twelve races include two eagerly-anticipated Kentucky Derby prep races: the $1,000,000 Louisiana Derby (gr. II) and the $1,000,000 Besilu Stables Florida Derby (gr. I). So get ready, everyone—we’ve got a lot of handicapping ahead of us!
Louisiana Derby (gr. II)
The Louisiana Derby is shaping up to be a virtual rematch of last month’s Risen Star Stakes (gr. II), with seven of the ten Louisiana Derby entrants having made their last start in the Risen Star. Those seven include Intense Holiday, Albano, and Vicar’s in Trouble, the top three finishers in the race.
Intense Holiday and Albano, who were separated by just a nose at the finish of the Risen Star, appear ready for encore performances this Saturday. The former, who possesses a strong finishing kick, should appreciate the additional sixteenth of a mile in distance that the Louisiana Derby offers, and has recorded a solid trio of half-mile breezes that suggest he is maintaining his form. Albano has also been training well, posting a pair of bullet five-furlong breezes at Fair Grounds.
But while this may be stubborn of me, I’m going to stick with Vicar’s in Trouble. I picked him to win the Risen Star, and thought his performance was strong given that he was caught wide throughout and forced to try and rally from off-the-pace, something he had never done before. He actually put in an eye-catching run around the far turn to reach contention before tiring in the homestretch, and since he has drawn a more ideal post position today (gate six) than he did in the Risen Star (gate thirteen), I believe he is capable of rebounding in a major way.
An interesting newcomer to the scene is the speedy In Trouble, who returned from a lengthy layoff to finish a close third in the Gotham Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct earlier this month. Now making his second start of the year, he could be sitting on an even sharper performance this Saturday, although having drawn gate nine—sandwiched between fellow speed horses Rise Up and Albano—could make his task of getting to the lead a bit difficult.
Selection: Vicar’s in Trouble
Florida Derby (gr. I)
There’s little doubt that Cairo Prince will be favored in this race off of his romping victory in the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III), which he won by 5 ¾ lengths over Conquest Titan and Intense Holiday. But that race was nine weeks ago, and a number of worthy challengers have emerged in the meantime.
First and foremost in my mind is General a Rod, runner-up by a head in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) after battling for the lead throughout with eventual winner Wildcat Red. It’s possible that he was helped that day by the track, which seemed to be favoring speed, but it’s more important to note the fast fractions that General a Rod helped set: an opening quarter in :23.03, a second quarter in :23.22, and a third quarter in :23.88. Those three sub-:24-second quarters are what separated him and Wildcat Red from the field, giving them a 3 1/2-length edge over their closest pursuers entering the final five-sixteenths of the race. The deal was sealed through a fourth quarter in :25.11, which was more than respectable given the fast early pace, and more than enough to put the race away. Track bias or no track bias, this was an excellent performance.
As a result, I really like both General a Rod and Wildcat Red in this spot, the former in particular because I feel he is a bit more tractable than his rival and should be able to work out a nice stalking trip if Constitution applies some early pressure to Wildcat Red.
Selection: General a Rod
I wish I had enough room here to analyze every one of the major stakes races coming up this Saturday, but I’m afraid that would get a bit long! However, I will be sharing my thoughts on many of the races, including the Dubai World Cup, in the comments section of this post. I hope you’ll join me!