Evan Hammonds: No yielding Saturday as horses jump to on ramp to Kentucky Derby

Evan Hammonds: No yielding Saturday as horses jump to on ramp to Kentucky Derby

The onramp to the Kentucky Derby (G1) gets pretty crowded Saturday with major races taking place in South Florida, New York, and Southern California. As the calendar turns to March the Derby is just nine weeks away, meaning it’s about time for the rubber to hit the road. 

These races—Gulfstream’s Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2), Aqueduct’s Gotham Stakes (G3), and Santa Anita’s San Felipe Stakes (G2) essentially wrap up the “50 point” races, that end with next weekend’s Tampa Bay Derby (G2).

Churchill Downs installed a points system for entry into the Run for the Roses starting in 2013. The bigger races in late March and April offer 100 points to the winner and 40-30-20-10 for second through fifth places. The way the scoring has gone, a win of one of those races guarantees a berth in the 20-stall starting gate and runner-up performance, along with a few points elsewhere, should get in. This weekend’s races offer 50-20-15-10 points, a good number for horses on the rise, but not a vital figure for those already with some points, or a horse such as champion Forte, who goes in the Fountain of Youth. A star doesn’t need to be 100% with bigger point prizes and bigger purses are still on the horizon. The goal is getting to the First Saturday in May in peak shape.

To see the current point standings, see:


However, the goal here is to find the most likely winners this weekend. Racing secretaries at all three venues have fashioned multiple stakes to take place on the undercard Saturday, leading to enhanced opportunities to make some hay before the main events. Let’s dive in.

Gulfstream Park / Fountain of Youth

The traditional springboard to the April 1 Florida Derby (G1) features the aforementioned Forte, winner of last year’s two biggest two-turn races for 2-year-olds, the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), both at Keeneland. Trainer Todd Pletcher-with a pair of Derby wins to his resume–has obviously been down this road before so there’s no second-guessing here. Co-owner Mike Repole has been quite active on social media as Forte has trained up to the FOY with a steady pattern of works every seven days in South Florida and by all accounts, appears to be ready to pick up where he left off last year. Listed at 7-5 on the morning line, and off his past performances, he’s a must use in exactas or trifectas, but probably isn’t the best win bet off the layoff. His just-off-the-pace running style makes him a tad vulnerable over the historically speed-friendly Gulfstream Park surface.

Two to consider are General Jim (6-1) on the rail for trainer Shug McGaughey and Rocket Can (8-1) for trainer Bill Mott. General Jim started his career on turf, breaking his maiden at Saratoga and taking an allowance race at Keeneland at the Fountain of Youth distance, then showing good one-turn speed winning the Feb. 4 Swale Stakes (G3) at Gulfstream at seven panels. Beyer Speed Figures – if you’re a follower—have improved as he’s aged; he’s a $850,000 sale yearling and a son of four-time leading sire Into Mischief; and has a top rider in Luis Saez. A best-case scenario would be for him to dictate the tempo from the rail. Rocket Can bounced up to win the Feb. 4 Holy Bull Stakes (G3) and at 2 held his own against Confidence Game (winner of last weekend’s Rebel Stakes, G2, at Oaklawn) and won at the FOY trip at Churchill Downs. He’s also by Into Mischief.

On the undercard Lady Rockstar (7-2 second choice) is poised to “bounce back” in her third start off the layoff in the 1 3/8-mile The Very One (G3T) that goes as race 6. In the sister race for the FOY, the one-mile Davona Dale, favored Red Carpet Ready, winner of the seven-furlong Forward Gal Stakes (G3; race 12) last out appears formidable, but 3-year-old fillies are not the most consistent class of Thoroughbred. Positano Sunset (8-1) had trouble aplenty in the Forward Gal and at a price can hopefully offer last year’s form in her second start of the season.

San Felipe Stakes / Santa Anita 

It’s “Big ‘Cap” Day at Santa Anita, my favorite day of racing in Southern California. They still run the Santa Anita Handicap (G1) at a mile and a quarter, an admirable trait, but the growth of the Dubai World Cup (G1) at the end of March has taken a lot of starch out of the lineup over the last decade. Bob Baffert-trained Defunded appears to be the one to beat, but watch the Brad Cox-trained Warrant, who just missed last year, returns off a similar pattern.

The key race of the day is the San Felipe (race 6), which drew 11 horses, which is nearly double the size of the usual Southern California stakes race. The cast includes lots of horses looking like they need a sizable step up to contend and there are five horses trained by Tim Yakteen. Yakteen, a former Baffert assistant, has taken over the training of four of Baffert’s runners as the Hall of Fame trainer is unable to earn Derby points or race in the Derby off a ban by Churchill Downs after Medina Spirit had a drug positive after winning the 2021 Derby. All of the runners that have been switched to Yakteen’s barn moved within the last two weeks, so their major training came under the auspices of Baffert. Expect them to shine here…but which one?

A top 2-year-old, National Treasure was third, beaten just a length in the one-mile Sham Stakes (G3) in early January, but was third behind two other Baffert runners. The winner of the Sham, Reincarnate, was off the board last weekend in the Rebel and runner-up Newgate is on the shelf, so it’s hard to get an angle there but it looks as if National Treasure can continue to move forward. Stablemate Hejazi has appeal but loses the use of Lasix (no Lasix allowed in graded stakes races) off his impressive maiden win at one turn in mid January. The same case applies to Geaux Rocket Ride for trainer Richard Mandella and Jim and Dana Bernhard, the new owners of venerable Pin Oak Stud. One with room for improvement off the layoff is the Yakteen-trained Fort Bragg, making his first foray since mid December.

We’ll prime the pump for the Big ‘Cap with a wager on 4-1 shot Air Force Red in the Frank E. Kilroe Mile (G1T; race 11). The 5-year-old trained by Leonard Powell has five wins over the SA turf course and shows the pattern for success in his third start off a rest. 

Gotham Stakes / Aqueduct

Perhaps the best betting race of the day is the Gotham at the Big A, with an overflow cast assembled for the one-turn mile event.

Horses on the outside seem most intriguing, starting with Lugan Knight (6-1; post 10). Winner of the Jan. 1 Jerome Stakes over the same trip and distance, he’s trained well in Central Kentucky since then and now heads back to New York. The runner-up in the Jerome was well-regarded Arctic Arrogance, who skips the race here due to an illness. It was seven lengths back to the third-place finisher that day, General Banker (post 6). Lugan Knight may not super fast looking at his speed figures, but he’s consistent. 

Trainer Brad Cox has two, but we’ll opt for Slip Mahoney (No. 11, 5-1) over Eyeing Clover. He popped a 87 Beyer (and a better 110 fig off the old-school track variant in DRF) breaking his maiden Jan. 21. He has the speed for Withers, and the post may not hurt off the nature of the one-turn mile. A 10-11 exacta box and win/place bets on both runners  is what we’ll key around.

Slated for post 14 is Recruiter, an unbeaten Army Mule colt who has showed good speed in New Jersey, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. He’s worth a look here, but he’s also cross-entered in a two-turn stakes race at Parx on Monday, so check for scratches.

Evan Hammonds is the former editor of BloodHorse magazine.

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