Road To The Triple Crown: Three Big Races On Saturday

The Road To The Triple Crown picks up in intensity on Saturday, as three big Kentucky Derby prep races run at three different tracks, with contenders looking to pick up the earnings they need to qualify for the Derby on the first Saturday in May. Here’s a snapshot look at the three races, all of which are televised on both HRTV and TVG, the horse racing channels that are usually available  among the sports channels on your satellite or cable package…

Withers Stakes (Aqueduct, NY, 4:05 PM ET): Alpha is the solid even-money favorite in a seven-horse field. Ridden by Ramon Dominguez and trained by Kieran McLaughlin, Alpha’s got a team leading the way. His first appearance on the national stage was in a race for two-year olds at last year’s Breeders’ Cup and he finished 11th. But a showing in Aqueduct’s Count Fleet Stakes in early January was more representative of the competition he’ll face here, and he won that race. The principal challengers are King Kid (4-1), Hakama (5-1) and Tiger Walk (6-1). King Kid is new to the New York circuit, and finished third in the Gulfstream Derby down in Florida. Hakama’s been steady and consistent, in the money all four of his starts, but nothing to suggest he’s ready to win a race like this. And Tiger Walk has won his last two races, but those have come at Maryland’s Laurel Park, where the competition isn’t nearly as tough as what he’ll face on Saturday. If you’re looking for a  big longshot, a couple of name trainers are in the field. Todd Pletcher has How Do I Win at 10-1, and Richard Dutrow Jr. has a 10-1 of his own in Swag Daddy.

I’m not ready to go against the favorite here, not with Alpha’s strong recent showing, and the quality of his trainer and jockey.

Sam F. Davis Stakes (Tampa Downs, 5:10 PM ET): There’s four horses are all priced fairly close together on the morning line. Reveron (3-1), Ecabroni (7-2), State Of Play (4-1) and Neck ‘N Neck (5-1) are the class of this 11-horse race. I like Ecabroni, trained by Pletcher and ridden by top New York jockey Javier Castellano. Neck ‘N Neck looks to be the pretender of this group, with a mostly mediocre showing, at least by the standards he’ll have to live up to on Saturday. The other two contenders offer some intrigue. Reveron has finished in the money five straight times and won three straight, although I’m not certain his connections can match up with the Pletcher/Castellano team behind Ecabroni. State Of Play tanked at the Breeders’ Cup, finishing 11th in a turf race for two-year olds, but he won a stakes race at Saratoga, the prestigious late summer meet in upstate New York that always draws good horses.

Beyond the main four, the only thing noteworthy I see in the bottom seven is the presence of quality jockey Julian Leparoux aboard Battle Hardened. The odds are 12-1 and the horse has run second his last two times out. If I were a bettor, I’d probably take out a ticket on this one. But to just pick the race on a blog like I’m doing here, I’ll stick with Ecabroni.

Robert B. Lewis Stakes (Santa Anita, 6:05 PM ET): Our day of prep races ends on the SoCal circuit and the top trainer in this corner of the world is Bob Baffert, who has two entries  set to go. As of this writing, odds are not yet posted on, so I can’t really determine who the favorite is. I can say that when you have a horse like Liasion that’s trained by Baffert, ridden by Rafael Bejanaro—one of the top three jockeys in the West (along with Joel Rosario and Mike Smith) and won three straight races on this circuit, let’s say I have no problem in picking that horse to win. Baffert also has Sky Kingdom, who only has two wins in five starts. Other noteworthy names here are trainers Doug O’Neill and Jeff Mullins. O’Neill’s I’ll Have Another has regressed in recent races, while Mullins brings Chips All In, whose won 4 of 5, including a stakes race here back on New Year’s Eve. This is another one worth taking a look at if you’re a betting man, pending what the odds end up being. And Rosario is aboard Empire Way, a mediocre contender who’s run middle of the pack his last two races.

So I’m all in on Alpha, Ecabroni and Liasion to win these races, with a longshot ticket on Battle Hardened in the Sam Davis as the moneymaking shot, were I actually betting. The races run about an hour apart, so if you’re watching college basketball, they’re a good option to audible down to for some channel-surfing on Saturday.