Super Bowl weekend kicked off Saturday with a trio of graded stakes races for three-year-olds and the results varied wildly.
The Grade 3 Withers went as expected, with heavily-favored Alpha posting an easy win over a suspect group of rivals on Aqueduct's inner track, and Battle Hardened's maiden score in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis came as little surprise considering that he was bet down as the 9-2 third choice among 11 challengers at Tampa Bay Downs.
But the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis delivered a stunner, with I'll Have Another surging to a 2 3/4-length victory at Santa Anita. Unraced since a well-beaten sixth in the Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga, the J. Paul Reddam-owned comebacker was overlooked at 43-1, more than double the odds of the second-longest price in the eight-horse field.
The top four betting choices in the Lewis -- Liaison, Rousing Sermon, Sky Kingdom and Isn't He Clever -- all finished off the board.
With the scratch of New York-bred Swag Daddy, Alpha headed to the starting gate as the lone stakes winner in the Withers and was hammered down to 2-5 in the 1 1/16-mile event. His convincing victory did little in terms of gauging his place among this year's top Kentucky Derby contenders, but likely served as a valuable learning tool.
Since winning his debut by six lengths at Saratoga, Alpha had been struggling with the starting gate. The Kiaran McLaughlin-trained colt recorded a non-threatening second in the Grade 1 Champagne following a slow start and acted terribly prior to a dull 11th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He missed the break in his 2012 opener, the January 7 Count Fleet Stakes, but still comfortably prevailed by 2 1/2 lengths.
Alpha acted more like a professional on Saturday, breaking smoothly beneath Ramon Dominguez, and did not get frustrated when being bumped and floated a little wide into the clubhouse turn. After racing closer to the pace than usual, the son of Bernardini responded when called upon in upper stretch, quickly opening up on his overmatched foes, and was simply kept to task in the final furlong.
The Godolphin-owned colt netted a solid 100 BRIS Speed rating, equaling a career-best from the Count Fleet, as well as a 104 BRIS Late Pace rating. He appears to be progressing nicely as a three-year-old and is bred to relish longer distances.
A class check still awaits Alpha, but he is rising in stature based upon his stylish performance in Saturday's Withers.
I'll Have Another returned from a 152-day hiatus in the 1 1/16-mile Lewis and raced close from the start, tracking pacesetter Isn't He Clever in second through the early stages, before seizing control turning for home.
He dominated through the stretch run, widening his advantage late as most observers scurried for their past performances in an attempt to find him, and lit up the tote board with win-place-show payoffs of $88.60, $35.80 and $12.
More impressively, I'll Have Another came home quickly, completely the final three-eighths in 30 1/5 seconds, and his final time (1:40.84) ranks as the fastest Lewis ever on dirt. The Flower Alley colt generated a 102 BRIS Speed and a 109 Late Pace rating.
The track was playing fast, but I'll Have Another was flattered when Setsuko, a contender for the upcoming Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, completed the same distance in 1:41.05 when posting a sharp victory later on the program.
I'll Have Another captured his career debut over Hollywood's Park Cushion Track last July and then finished second to the well-regarded Creative Cause in the Grade 2 Best Pal early in the Del Mar meet. The speedy colt shipped east for the seven-furlong Hopeful, but caught a sloppy track at Saratoga and never got involved in the running.
The chestnut was training at Hollywood Park in preparation for his three-year-old debut, reportedly slated to be an allowance race, and wound up being a surprise addition to the Lewis field. He seemingly came out of nowhere to win his first start at two turns Saturday and looked good doing it.
Out of an Arch mare, I'll Have Another established himself as a legitimate prospect but must now prove that the Lewis wasn't a fluke. Trainer Doug O'Neill plans on skipping the Grade 2 San Felipe on March 10 and will instead wait nine weeks for the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 7.
That is a long wait.
Empire Way, a full to champion three-year-old filly Royal Delta, floundered in consecutive stakes attempts last fall/winter, but the Mike Harrington trainee is off to an encouraging start this season following his runner-up in the Lewis.
Last after a quarter-mile, the dark bay colt raced against the bias to reach contention turning for home. And while he never threatened the winner, Empire Way finished 2 3/4 lengths clear of third, registering a 112 Late Pace figure.
Empire Way could develop into any kind and will get every chance on turf if the main track doesn't work out. And the Empire Maker colt has the look of a potential late bloomer this year. He may not put it all together in time for the first Saturday in May, but Empire Way remains intriguing.
Liaison turned in an extremely disappointing effort as 3-2 favorite. He broke forwardly and raced in a good stalking position, within two lengths of the pacesetter, before coming up empty. To make matters worse, Liaison clipped heels in midstretch after spitting the bit and dislodged jockey Rafael Bejarano.
Rousing Sermon, a close second to Liaison in both the CashCall Futurity and Real Quiet Stakes last year, never got involved from off the pace and checked in fourth. Recent allowance winner Sky Kingdom, one of two in the field from the Bob Baffert stable along with Liaison, showed even less in a sixth-place effort.
Battle Hardened collared a weakening Reveron in deep stretch and drove to a 1 1/4-length win in Saturday's Sam Davis, pocketing his first victory in his fourth career start. Owned by Coolmore principals, the Eddie Kenneally-trained son of Giant's Causeway entered the 1 1/16-mile Sam Davis off a head second in a nine-furlong maiden special weight at Gulfstream Park on New Year's Eve.
Battle Hardened will need to keep improving off a slow win Saturday, registering only a 91 Speed rating in his stakes debut.
It was a three-horse blanket finish behind the winner, with Prospective, Reveron and Ravelo's Boy separated by a nose in second, third and fourth, respectively.
The competition will get much tougher for all the Sam Davis contestants.
Reveron captured the January 1 Gulfstream Park Derby in his previous outing but did little to flatter those rivals in the final furlong Saturday, shortening stride badly after surging to a clear lead off the far turn. Nobody has come back to run well from that race so far.
Ever So Lucky will make his anticipated 2012 bow in Saturday's Grade 2 Hutcheson and five opponents will line up to challenge the Indian Charlie colt in the seven-furlong event.
Ever So Lucky is trained by Jonathan Sheppard, a Hall of Famer who is seldom seen on the road to the Triple Crown, and provides a line upon Gemologist, a well-regarded Tiznow colt preparing for a March return with Pletcher. Ever So Lucky finished nearly two lengths back of Gemologist when second in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs in late November.
Top challengers include Thunder Moccasin and Quick Wit, a pair of good-looking maiden winners sprinting at Gulfstream for Pletcher and Dale Romans.
The Kentucky Derby Future Wager also gets underway on Thursday and the mutuel field of "all others" is always a short price in Pool 1. In search of value, El Padrino and Creative Cause both offer some appeal at or near their 20-1 morning line odds.
We'll review the Hutcheson and other developments surrounding the Kentucky Derby in next week's edition.