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Gary West's Kentucky Derby Championship Series Review: San Felipe & Tampa Bay Derby

By Gary West, special to

Every year, for at least a week and sometimes two, the road to the Kentucky Derby seems to veer through Oz, not that monkeys start flying or lions talking, but just about everything that happens elicits a “Really?” or at least raises an eyebrow. Everything, in other words, moves the needle on the surprise meter. Well, this past week was that week.

California Chrome's San Felipe win takes the pressure off Sherman

The pressure is off Art Sherman. By earning 50 qualifying points to the Kentucky Derby with California Chrome's dazzling victory in Saturday's Grade 2 San Felipe, the door to Louisville, Kentucky, and the Run for the Roses on May 3 was opened wide.

Honor Code breezes half-mile in advance of return

Honor Code, who will make his much-anticipated 2014 debut on Wednesday at Gulfstream Park, breezed four furlongs in :47 4/5 Sunday morning over the fast main track. Out of action since defeating Cairo Prince in the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct on November 30, the son of A.P. Indy schooled in the paddock Sunday afternoon, and will face four rivals in an 8 1/2-furlong allowance test on Wednesday.

Rise Up to add blinkers next time

Paul and Andrena Van Doren's Delta Jackpot winner Rise Up worked with blinkers on when he posted a four-furlong move in :48 1/5 on Mardi Gras morning, and 10-time Fair Grounds trainer champion Tom Amoss advised Saturday afternoon that his colt will have blinkers on for his next start, which has yet to be determined.

Weekend runs rings around rivals to upset Tampa Bay Derby

St. Elias Stable and West Point Thoroughbreds' Ring Weekend grabbed the early lead and never looked back in Saturday's Grade 2, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby, springing the 14-1 upset in his first start outside of maiden company. Trained by Graham Motion and ridden by local ace Daniel Centeno, the Tapit gelding paid $30 to win and earned 50 points toward the Kentucky Derby.

California Chrome polishes off San Felipe foes

Stabled at Los Alamitos, a hotbed of Quarter Horse-style speed for decades, the three-year-old California Chrome demonstrated his own Thoroughbred twist on early flash with an electric score in the Grade 2, $300,500 San Felipe at Santa Anita on Saturday.

Cairo Prince, General a Rod work for Florida Derby

Cairo Prince, likely favorite for the $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on March 29, took another step toward the race with a half-mile work on Saturday.

Top Billing off classic trail with cracked cannon bone

Top Billing, one of the most celebrated prospects for the $1 million Florida Derby and Triple Crown, sustained an injury during a workout at Payson Park Saturday morning that has knocked the Shug McGaughey-trained colt off the Triple Crown Trail.

Honor Code entered in Gulfstream allowance

Remsen hero Honor Code, who had been mentioned as a candidate for the March 15 Rebel at Oaklawn Park, will instead make his reappearance in Wednesday's 8TH race at Gulfstream Park. The Kentucky Derby hopeful will meet only four foes in the 1 1/16-mile allowance race, including flashy debut maiden winner Social Inclusion.

General a Rod confirmed for Florida Derby

Gulfstream Park Derby winner General a Rod will make his next start in the $1 million Florida Derby on March 29, trainer Mike Maker confirmed Friday morning.

Bayern out of San Felipe

Undefeated morning-line favorite Bayern has been withdrawn from Saturday's Grade 2 San Felipe because of a bruised hoof, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert confirmed Thursday afternoon.

\"Bayern out of San Felipe," Baffert tweeted. "Bruised inside quarter. Was looking forward to seeing him run Saturday. Be OK soon."

Blue Grass attracts 191 nominees

The 90th running of the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass has attracted an all-star list of 191 nominees, Keeneland announced Thursday. Scheduled for April 12, the 1  1/8-mile Blue Grass is one of the country's premier three-year-old preps, offering 100 points to the winner on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.

Honor Code on schedule for Rebel

As long as there are no bumps along the way, highly regarded Honor Code's road to Louisville for the first Saturday in May is coming through Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Vinceremos continues bonus bid in Tampa Bay Derby

Vinceremos' bid for a $1 million bonus continues on Saturday when he faces nine rivals in the Grade 2, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby over 1 1/16 miles.

Bayern faces nine in San Felipe

A runaway winner in both career starts, Bayern will step up to make his stakes debut in Saturday's Grade 2, $300,000 San Felipe at Santa Anita. The 1 1/16-mile test is part of the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" scoring series and offers points on a 50-20-10-5 scale to the top four finishers.

Kentucky Derby Report -- March 6

The Gotham featured an exciting three-horse stretch duel on the inner track at Aqueduct and Samraat posted an outstanding victory.

After traveling wide on both turns, Samraat surged to the lead in upper stretch and gamely repulsed stubborn foes Uncle Sigh and In Trouble to the wire. The 1 1/16-mile Gotham didn't answer any questions surrounding his effectiveness at 1 1/4 miles two months from now, but Samraat continues to distinguish himself.

Velazquez to ride Wildcat Red in Florida Derby

For the fifth time in as many starts, Wildcat Red will have a new rider when he returns in the $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on March 29.

Gary West's Kentucky Derby Championship Series Review: Gotham Stakes

By Gary Wesy, special to

For now, he’s just the King of Queens, but don’t underestimate him. In May, with his place in the Churchill Downs starting gate virtually reserved, he could attempt to extend his dominion to Kentucky.

Samraat, whose name is an ancient Indian title meaning “king” or “emperor,” jumped to the top of the Kentucky Derby leaderboard after winning Saturday’s Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. He’s not one of the more celebrated 3-year-olds perhaps, but the 50 points he earned Saturday bumped his total to 60; and so he’s just ahead of Intense Holiday, the winner of the Risen Star Stakes, with 53 points, and Wildcat Red, the winner of the Fountain of Youth, with 50.

In finishing second in the Gotham, Uncle Sigh earned 20 points, giving him a total of 24; and In Trouble, making his first start in five months, picked up 10 points for finishing third. Within a half-length of each other at the wire, all three ran well enough to suggest they could improve and could indeed become contenders for the 140th Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. In fact, Samraat’s winning time for the 1 1/16 miles, 1:44.44, was about three lengths faster than Teen Pauline’s a race earlier, in the Top Flight Handicap.

Although unbeaten in five races, Samraat seems to be approaching the Kentucky Derby quietly, inconspicuously even. But pundits should be forgiven for underestimating him, if they consider him at all, because few Derby horses, generally speaking, ever emerge from a snow-encrusted winter in Queens, N.Y. Except for his debut at Belmont Park, he never has raced outside of Queens, where some horses, like some guys with oysters, develop an inexplicable fondness for the winterized inner track. And in the first three races of his career, Samraat defeated New York-breds.

But it’s impossible to watch his effort Saturday and not be impressed. As his trainer, Rick Violette, said, in the Gotham, Samraat “proved he’s a racehorse.” In fact, the King of Queens is a racehorse of quality.

And, as with any athlete performing at a high level, his intelligence adds to effectiveness. A speedster in his first three outings, where his talent enabled him to dominate, Samraat has learned to accept the cues of his rider, Jose Ortiz. When he didn’t break sharply, Samraat willingly cruised into a stalking position. And so he raced four-wide in the first turn, behind In Trouble and Uncle Sigh, who took the field through an opening half-mile in 48.30 seconds.

That might seem uncommonly slow, but actually was moderate. Over the dull Aqueduct surface, the half-mile splits for the other two-turn races that day were 47.89, 49.90, 48.41 and 49.45.

Samraat advanced in the second turn, and the leaders entered the stretch three abreast. From there, they all had their chance; but Samraat simply outfinished his rivals, and he did so without alarm or panic. Nor did he receive any encouragement from Ortiz’s whip. Although jostled around between horses, Uncle Sigh finished determinedly, a neck back. And In Trouble, who dug in gamely along the rail while making his first start since winning the Futurity at Belmont in September, was another neck back in third.

They’re all pointed in the right direction, they’re all capable of improvement and they’re all going to meet again April 5 in the Wood Memorial.

A couple horses stepped out of the shadows over the weekend. Making his first start for trainer Nick Zito, Spot won the Swale Stakes at Gulfstream, rallying from fifth and running right by the 2-5 favorite, No Nay Never, in mid-stretch. A son of Pulpit, Spot has a pedigree that suggests he could improve around two turns.

His winning time for the seven-furlong Swale was 1:22.44, which highlights another horse that ran Saturday at Gulfstream. Making the second start of his career after winning his debut in January, Anchor Down won a conditional allowance race in 1:21.67. In other words, the handsome gray son of Tapit ran about four lengths faster than Spot in the Swale. Although far behind the division’s leaders in terms of experience, he’s one to watch.

Bond Holder to miss Tampa Bay Derby

In a Facebook posting Monday morning, trainer Doug O'Neill announced that Bond Holder would not contest Saturday's $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby as originally planned.

California Chrome drills for San Felipe

California Chrome had his final major workout for Saturday's Grade 2, $300,000 San Felipe Stakes, going five furlongs Sunday morning at Los Alamitos in 1:00 2/5.