The Week Ahead: Who Wants Revenge?

If you believe that the start of the Keeneland meet, the Wood Memorial, the return of grass racing at Aqueduct and the penultimate weekend of Derby preps is usually a sign of spring being here then put your coat away for good and get ready for racing to hit its stride.  There are five Grade I stakes scheduled for this Saturday, the most of any Saturday so far this year.  The Santa Anita Derby (G1) is set to be a showdown between Pioneerof the Nile and The Pamplemousse, both of whom are undefeated this year and continue to grow in popularity among racing fans.  They are complete opposites in terms of style as the former likes to do his running from off the pace while the latter is an oddity among synthetic track specialists.  In victories in the San Rafael and Sham he has proven himself to be a free-wheeling speedster who just gallops his rivals into the ground.

The lone “new” shooter in the Santa Anita Derby will be Chocolate Candy, who finished 3rd behind Pioneerof the Nile and I Want Revenge in the CashCall Futurity back in December at Hollywood Park.  He has spend the winter in Northern California, earning victories in the California Derby and El Camino Real Derby, both at Golden Gate.  Here is the El Camino Real Derby for those of you still wondering about Chocolate Candy:

The Apple Blossom (G1) lost some of its luster on Tuesday when trainer Larry Jones declared his champion filly Proud Spell.  She was 2nd in her 2009 debut over a sloppy track but seemed poised to move forward with that race under her belt.  Acoma, who recently won the Azeri (G3) over the Oaklawn strip, will now be the starting highweight and probable favorite in a race that has clearly had stronger runnings.

The Ashland (G1) will feature the defending two year-old Stardom Bound making her first start outside of California.  She has failed to inspire despite scoring in her first two starts of 2009 and it’s clearly time for the IEAH Oaks hopeful to move forward and show us some of what we expected after she closed the 2008 campaign in style.  Perhaps her strongest rival will be What a Pear, who won the Busher at Aqueduct in late February by a distance and is 4 for 4 with each of her victories coming over the inner track.  Her class will be called into question but doubters should remember that one year ago the Busher winner, Little Belle, was victorious in the Ashland in wire-to-wire fashion.

The Carter Handicap (G1) is a veritable “Who’s Who?”  of the sprint division on the east coast led by Cigar Mile and Wood Memorial victor Tale of Ekati.  Expected to join the son of Tale of the Cat in the gate are multiple graded stakes winner Fabulous Strike, recent General George winner True Quality, graded stakes winner Kodiak Kowboy and Ah Day, Toboggan runner-up Eternal Star and upstarts Understatement and Biker Boy.  The Carter has undergone a resurgence since being moved to the Wood Memorial undercard and in consecutive years we’ve been treated to riveting editions won by Bustin Stones and Silver Wagon.  The 2009 version looks like it will not disappoint.

The race on most minds east of the Mississippi will be the Wood Memorial.  The field will be led by Gotham (G3) winner I Want Revenge, who took to conventional dirt like a fish to water winning by 8 1/2 lengths on the inner track.  However, revenge is what will be sought by Imperial Council who was barely involved in the Gotham outcome, but managed to be first among the also-rans behind the runaway winner.  A son of Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker, this Shug McGaughey trainee will need a 2nd place finish or better to have sufficient graded earnings for the Kentucky Derby.  McGaughey is not the kind of guy to take a horse to Louisville who doesn’t have much of a chance but it seems reasonable to think this guy will improve on his Gotham showing. 

As of now the only speedster set to go in the Wood Memorial is Lord Justice, a beautifully bred Todd Pletcher trainee who was also entered in the Illinois Derby.  Peruse the entries carefully when they come out tomorrow and be sure to handicap the $400,000 guaranteed All-Stakes Pick 4 at the Big A on Saturday.  We’ll see you back Friday for stakes analysis and a weekend preview.  Until then, good luck at the races!

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