FIVE GRADED STAKES WILL PUT TRIPLE CROWN TRAIL INTO HIGH GEAR WITH UPCOMING WEEKEND OF RACING

Some major Triple Crown prospects will get their mettle tested on Saturday as three Grade II and two Grade III races headline action on the weekend.

Taking center stage are the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., and the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif. Each carries Grade II status and each features one of the top candidates for the Kentucky Derby, the first of the three classics leading to racing’s Triple Crown.

Race favorites: FRIESAN FIRE in Louisiana, OLD FASHINONED in Arkansas and PIONEEROF THE NILE in California.

The Grade III contests are the Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs and the Palm Beach Stakes on the Gulfstream Park turf.

THE LOUISIANA DERBY – FRIESAN FIRE brings two straight Grade III victories over the Fair Grounds track, but the result of Saturday’s Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct in which Southern California invader I WANT REVENGE was a dominating winner may give pause to those who figure the LeComte and Risen Star winner has an edge as a “horse for the course.”

That’s because scheduled to come in from Southern California for Fair Grounds’ $600,000 signature race is PAPA CLEM, who finished a half-length behind top California prospect PIONEEROF THE NILE in Santa Anita’s Robert B. Lewis Stakes and a solid one-length better than I WANT REVENGE in the race.

Trainer Gary Stute, son of veteran conditioner Mel Stute, is hoping this trip to the New Orleans oval will be much better than his first trip 29 years ago. That’s when he went East with his dad’s Kentucky Derby prospect Bold ‘n Rulling for the Louisiana Derby. “He got sick after we got there,” Gary Stute said, “and he didn’t make the race. But I did take him on to Arkansas and finished second in the Arkansas Derby.”

The horse finished sixth in the 1980 Kentucky Derby.

Saturday’s race will be the first on dirt for the son of Smart Strike, and Stute is hoping that he’ll get the same kind of response from his colt that fellow Southern California trainer Jeff Mullins got from I WANT REVENGE.

The Louisiana Derby will not be shy of top-notch runners. Also set for the race at 1 1/6-miles are FLYING PEGASUS, second in the Risen Star in his 2009 debut; PATENA, LeComte runner-up; GIANT OAK, a disappointing fifth in the Risen Star, and TERRAIN, making his 3-year-old debut for trainer Al Stall Jr.

THE REBEL -- The undefeated OLD FASHIONED, fancied as the top 3-year-old at this point by many handicappers, headlines the list of prospective starts in the $300,000 Oaklawn race. The Larry Jones trainee made his 3-year-old debut with a major victory in the Grade III Southwest Stakes at the Arkansas oval.
Jones has been a major player on the Triple Crown trail, sending out Hard Spun to finish second in the 2007 Kentucky Derby and the ill-fated Eight Belles as runner-up in 2008. Eight Belles was injured galloping out after the finish and was euthanized.

OLD FASHIONED and FRIESAN FIRE give him two imposing prospects on this year’s trail and could provide him with a major weekend double with a sweep of the Rebel and Louisiana Derby.
The major test in the Rebel for the Unbridled’s Song colt could come from SILVER CITY, who has finished no worse than third in his five career starts. Also a son of Unbridled’s Song, the W. Bret Calhoun trainee finished second to OLD FASHIONED in the Southwest and he’s back to try to turn the tables on the winner.

Also possible for the race are FLAT OUT, fourth in the Southwest; NOWHERE TO HIDE, fourth in the Risen Star, and WISE KID, HIS GREATNESS and POLTERGEIST, all allowance winners at Oaklawn.

SAN FELIPE – It won’t be a walkover, but pre-eminent California Kentucky Derby prospect PIONEEROF THE NILE is expected to face a small field in Santa Anita’s $200,000 final prep for the Santa Anita Derby.

The Bob Baffert-trained son of Empire Maker has put together two straight graded stakes victories, picking up the Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes in his 3-year-old debut, following a victory in the Grade I Cash Call Futurity at Hollywood Park to close out his 2-year-old season.

The second- and third-place finishers in the Lewis Stakes – PAPA CLEM and I WANT REVENGE – have gone elsewhere rather than tackle him again.

He could face JERANIMO, runner-up in a recent allowance race; MASSONE and RENDEZVOUS, second and third in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields, and non-nominee to the Triple Crown Leedstheway, who finished second in the Grade II San Vicente Stakes, won by the filly Evita Argentina.

TAMPA BAY DERBY – Without a potential stand-out prospect coming in, the Tampa Bay Derby appears to be heading toward a full field of 12 for its Saturday renewal at Florida’s Tampa Bay downs. At least that’s the way stakes coordinator Duane Christo sees it.

“Two years ago,” he said, “Street Sense was coming so not many wanted to run against him so we got a small field. Last year, War Pass came and the same thing happened. This year, we don’t have a super star of that caliber coming so I think we’ll get a full field of 12.”

Heading the early list of prospective starters are HELLO BROADWAY, bred and owned by Elizabeth Valando and trained by Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Barclay Tagg, and GENERAL QUARTERS, owned by Thomas R. McCarthy and trained by Mark L. Miller. The latter comes to the race from a victory in Tampa Bay’s Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes February 14, and the Tagg trainee will be working to improve on his two most recent outings – runner-up finishes in the Grade III Nashua Stakes as a 2-year-old and the Grade II Hutcheson Stakes in his 3-year-old debut.

Also set for the Derby are SUMO, a solid second in the Sam Davis for trainer H. Graham Motion; the Todd Pletcher-trained JOIN IN THE DANCE; TOP SEED, who was sixth in the Sam Davis for trainer Michael Trombetta; the Ian Wilkes-trained WARRIOR’S REWARD, trying stakes for the first time, and non-nominee local hero Musket Man, who was third in the Sam Davis.

PALM BEACH STAKES – Dogwood Stable’s LIME RICKEY, trained by Frank Alexander, will make another run at impressive turf expert Duke of Homberg in what’s expected to be a small field for the $150,000 Gulfstream Park race. LIME RICKEY finished second to “The Duke” in the Hallandale Beach Stakes in his most recent start after settling for second in the Dania Beach Stakes.
Also possible for the race is HOLD ME BACK, trained by Bill Mott for WinStar Farm, who would be making his first start of 2009.

CATCHING UP – I WANT REVENGE is the latest of the promising 3-year-olds to make an impression with his monster win in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. Although many lengths behind in second place, IMPERIAL COUNCIL showed he’s capable of a big effort by closely torridly to capture the place spot from MR. FANTASY.

Putting up good numbers also have been MR. PAMPLEMOUSSE, winner of Santa Anita’s San Rafael and Sham Stakes, and Fountain of Youth winner Quality Road, who is expected to be nominated by the late-nomination deadline of March 28.

Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion and Eclipse winner for 2-year-old male MIDSHIPMAN is off the trail with an injury, and B.C. runner-up SQUARE EDDIE may be lost for the Triple Crown season, also.
The spectacular filly STARDOM BOUND may be moving off the trail, too, as a result of her very tough victory in Saturday’s Santa Anita Oaks. Trainer Robert Frankel was quoted Sunday as saying, “I don’t think so,” when questioned about the possibility of tackling males in the April 4 Santa Anita Derby.