By Mike Farrell
Spring has finally sprung.
You can feel it in the air here in the Northeast as we bathe in a welcome warming trend.
The harbingers of spring are everywhere. We have already set our clocks ahead one hour [a pointless nuisance we can debate in a different forum]; the spring equinox arrived last Saturday, officially marking the end of winter; and the swallows indeed returned to San Juan Capistrano.
The arrival of spring also holds major significance for racing fans. The action heats up from here, especially along the Triple Crown trail.
There are three important prep races on tap this weekend, each worth 100 qualifying points to the winner, more than enough to guarantee a starting berth in the Kentucky Derby.
Add in the $12 million Dubai World Cup (G1) for older runners, and you have an action-packed Saturday to greet the new season.
Greatest Honour Tops Florida Derby Field
It has already been a productive winter at Gulfstream Park for Greatest Honour with victories in the Holy Bull (G3) and the Fountain of Youth (G1).
He is clearly the Beast of the East, and this is the final stop before the anticipated journey to Louisville.
The $750,000 Florida Derby (G1) is one of the venerable events on the Triple Crown trail and a solid yardstick for measuring 3-year-old talent. Another win by Greatest Honor would cement his standing as a strong favorite, and perhaps the horse to beat, in the Kentucky Derby.
Keep a camera on Spielberg
Of course, there are always upset candidates lurking, like Spielberg for trainer Bob Baffert who lost a top Derby prospect when Life Is Good suffered a workout injury at Santa Anita over the weekend.
Spielberg was second to Eclipse Award champion Essential Quality in the Southwest Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn Park last month. This is his chance to make a Derby statement.
“We’ll see how he stacks up,” Baffert said.
And then there is Known Agenda, who already owns a win over Greatest Honour in a maiden race at Aqueduct back in November.
Other likely challengers include Collaborate, Nova Rags, Soup and Sandwich, Papetu, Quantum Leap, Jirafales and Siglioso.
Hush of a Storm looks for Turfway repeat
The fact Churchill Downs has acquired Turfway Park explains the $250,000 Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3), formerly known as the Spiral Stakes, now awarding the winner an overly generous 100 Derby qualifying points compared to the 10 points the race offered in the past.
It’s Churchill’s game. It’s their race on the first Saturday in May, and they set the rules.
So, come and get it! There’s a Derby starting slot sitting there in Latonia, Kentucky, this Saturday.
Hush of a Storm already owns a stakes win over the Tapeta surface, having captured the John Battaglia Memorial on Feb. 26. Like the King, Gretzky the Great and Hard Rye Guy — the second through fourth finishers in the Battaglia — are expected back for another try.
Japan takes aim at UAE Derby
The Japan-based trio of Pink Kamehameha, France Go De Ina and Takeru Pegasus are among the leading prospects in this undercard event to the Dubai World Cup at Meydan Racecourse.
That’s our transition into the World Cup. We sent two of our best — Charlatan and Knicks Go — to the desert for the Saudi Cup.
The U.S. lineup for the Dubai World Cup is far less imposing. Mystic Guide, the Razorback Handicap (G3) winner, might be our brightest hope among an American contingent that includes Jesus’ Team, Sleepy Eyes Todd and Title Ready.
Hot Rod Charlies revs up, Life Is Good checks out
Saturday was a day of stunning developments on the 3-year-old front.
Starting with the positive, Hot Rod Charlie finally delivered on the promise he hinted with his second-place finish to Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). He scored his first stakes victory in the Louisiana Derby (G2) with an honest pacesetting effort that broke the mold of his usual come-from-behind efforts.
He bagged 100 qualifying points, putting him squarely in the Derby picture only hours after Life Is Good was withdrawn from consideration after suffering a hind-end injury.
That’s what makes the Triple Crown chase so intriguing. Contenders rocket into contention and just as suddenly, crash back to earth.
The jury, and decision by the veterinarians is still out as to the future for Life Is Good. Baffert indicated the injury was not life threatening. As for racing … that’s the great unknown.