Saturday's $250,000 Calder Derby is not a points-scoring race on the road to the Kentucky Derby, but the 1 1/8-mile test has attracted a pair of notable entrants in Ring Weekend and Cleburne.
Both have also been mentioned as possible candidates for the April 12 Blue Grass at Keeneland, which offers a total of 170 Derby points. That doesn't matter as much to Ring Weekend, who virtually assured himself of a spot in the Kentucky Derby field by wiring the March 8 Tampa Bay Derby and banking 50 points. Cleburne, on the other hand, has not raced since capturing the Iroquois last September, and therefore has just 10 points from that very first scoring race on the schedule.
As by far the most accomplished members of the 10-horse field, Ring Weekend and Cleburne rank as co-highweights at 122 pounds, with the rest carrying 115.
Ring Weekend has improved markedly since being gelded. Trained by Graham Motion for the partnership of St. Elias Stable and West Point Thoroughbreds, the son of Tapit overcame a wide trip from post 10 to break his maiden in his fifth career start at Gulfstream Park on February 8. He made his stakes debut in the Tampa Bay Derby, where he opened up a decisive lead early and went on to spring a 14-1 surprise over Vinceremos, Surfing U S A and Conquest Titan.
With presumably sufficient Derby points already in the bag, Ring Weekend has the luxury of taking a softer option for his final stepping stone to Churchill Downs. He familiarized himself with the Calder surface by drilling five furlongs in a bullet 1:00 2/5 last Friday, and is well drawn in post 2. Alan Garcia, who missed out on the Tampa Bay Derby when riding in Saudi Arabia that day, reunites with him.
Cleburne, two-for-two as a juvenile, hopes to stay unbeaten in this belated reappearance for Dale Romans. Victorious in his unveiling on the turf at Ellis Park in August, the Dixie Union colt delivered another rousing rally to prevail in the Iroquois three weeks later at Churchill Downs. Finishing a close third in the Iroquois was Tapiture, who has since gone on to take the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill and the Southwest at Oaklawn.
Entered in the November 2 Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita, Cleburne unfortunately sustained a shin injury and had to be scratched two days before the race. He did not return to the worktab at Gulfstream Park until February 22, but has been a regular presence ever since.
Considering that his ownership group, Donegal Racing, has campaigned a pair of Kentucky Derby third-place finishers in Paddy O'Prado (2010) and Dullahan (2012), it might have been expected for Cleburne to seek Derby points in his comeback. But connections have turned to this less intense spot, and Abdiel Jaen picks up the mount on the confirmed closer.
Our Caravan, a three-length debut winner at Gulfstream in December, was well beaten in his subsequent stakes attempts in the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth. The Michael Dilger trainee is another in search of easier company, and he also adds blinkers.
Tapicero steps up in class off a 7 1/2-length maiden score here on March 21, while Gaining Ground brings a two-race win streak into his stakes debut, having captured a $50,000 maiden claimer at Gulfstream and an entry-level allowance at Calder. Charlie the Boss wheels back on short rest, and goes turf-to-dirt, after taking a March 27 starter/optional claimer on the Gulfstream lawn in front-running fashion.
Rounding out the field are General Sham'mah and Copa del Rey, respectively second and third to Gaining Ground last out, and the ambitiously-placed pair of Russian Humor and Racetrack Romance from the Gennadi Dorochenko barn. Racetrack Romance is cross-entered to Friday's 6TH race, a $25,000 claimer.