Friday, February 3, 2012
All three stakes are graded, which means the top finishers in each race will be credited with their corresponding earnings in the quest to qualify for the Derby.
The Kentucky Derby is limited to 20 starters and gives preference to those entrants with the most earnings in graded races. Last year Derby Kitten was the last to qualify for the Kentucky Derby with $120,000 in graded earnings while the year before, eventual fourth-place finisher Make Music For Me needed a record $218,750 to earn a place in the Derby starting gate. In 2009, it took a record low $55,500 for Nowhere to Hide to complete the Kentucky Derby field.
Aqueduct will host the $200,000 Withers Stakes (gr. III), Santa Anita features the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) and Tampa Bay Downs presents the $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes. All three races will be run over 1-1/16 miles.
It has been nearly 70 years since Count Fleet won both the Withers and Kentucky Derby, but the Withers used to be run in late April. The late Count Fleet was usually just one week before the Kentucky Derby and much too close to the Derby for most Withers winners. The race was not run last year, but the Withers has returned and is now part of Aqueduct’s lead-up to the Triple Crown. After the Withers, Aqueduct will offer the $400,000 Gotham in March and the $1 million Wood Memorial in April.
Named for the late California owner who won the Kentucky Derby with Silver Charm in 1997 and Charismatic in 1999, the Robert B. Lewis will be run for the 74th time at Santa Anita. Formerly the Santa Catalina Stakes, the last winner of this race to go on to take the Run for the Roses was Ferdinand in 1986. Although 2009 Robert Lewis winner Pioneerof the Nile was second to long shot Mine That Bird in the Kentucky Derby that year.
After the Lewis, the natural progression to the Triple Crown races for California-based horses is the Mar. 10 San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) and the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) April 7. There is also the seven furlong San Vicente Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita Feb. 19 for Derby and/or Triple Crown hopefuls.
First run in 1991, the much younger Sam F. Davis Stakes has never had its winner also take the Kentucky Derby. General Quarters is the most recent Davis winner to start in the Kentucky Derby, finishing 10th in 2009. The Sam F. Davis is the main local prep race for the Mar. 10 Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) which produced 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver.
Two contenders this weekend are on most “Derby Watch” lists including Alpha, the even money morning line favorite in the Withers; and Liason, the 9-to-5 morning line top choice in the Robert Lewis.
In his most recent start, Alpha won the $150,000 Count Fleet Stakes at Aqueduct Jan. 7 but trainer Kiaran McLaughlin is cautious when talking about the Kentucky Derby. “The Withers is an important race because it’s graded and you don’t get to run in the Derby unless you have those graded stakes earnings,” McLaughlin said. “When you look at the schedule, you start with the first Saturday in May (the traditional day of the Kentucky Derby), and work back from there. We are taking the Withers as an important step, and maybe, maybe, afterward we’ll talk about what we’re going to do.” Currently Alpha has $60,000 in graded earnings from finishing second to Union Rags in last year’s Champagne Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont Park.
Sky Kingdom was fourth in the CashCall but was an impressive allowance winner at Santa Anita on Jan. 12, winning a mile and one-sixteenth test by 4 ½ lengths, “easily.”
“I just want them to have a good race,” Baffert said. “They’ve had a few starts now where they’ve got enough foundation and they’ve done well. You just want them to stay healthy.”
Gulfstream Park Derby winner Reveron is the 3-to-1 morning line favorite in the Sam Davis and is making his first start in a graded race. Trained by Agustin Bezra, Reveron too has won three straight including victories over maidens and against allowance company at Calder Race Course near Miami in November before winning the Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year’s Day.