02/05/2012 3:25PM

Choking on Chalk; 3yo Preps

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Saturday struck me as a highly unusual day of stakes racing. There were 16 stakes across the country with six figure purses, and nine of those races were won by prohibitive, if not heavy favorites. I know these results could be taken as another illustration of the weakening of the breed, or as evidence of serious thinning of quality at the top of the sport. But whatever the probable cause, or the expectation of odds-on favorites in a more general sense, when you look at the list of Saturday’s tiny priced stakes winners, it’s still stunning:

Alpha – Withers - $2.70

Star Guitar – Louisiana Premier Night Championship - $3.20

Calibrachoa – Toboggan - $2.90

Mr. Commons – Arcadia - $2.80

Zagora – Endeavor - $3.80

Dixie Strike – Florida Oaks - $3.60

Nicole H – Correction - $3.00

Speedacious – Louisiana Premier Night Matron - $3.40

Alternation – Essex - $4.20

And it should be pointed out that there were several other more heavily favored winners in Saturday’s lesser stakes races.

The funny thing about it is, the overriding theme Saturday was the Road to the Derby, as it will be most weekends for the next three months, and yet the day’s three 3-year-old preps were not buried in this blizzard of chalk. Yes, there was one Derby stepping stone that produced a paltry return, that being the Withers at Aqueduct won by Alpha. But the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs was won by a maiden. It’s true that Battle Hardened might have been a well regarded maiden for he was the 9-2 third choice in the betting, but he was a maiden going in, nonetheless. And Saturday’s best Derby prep on paper, the Robert Lewis at Santa Anita, produced the day’s biggest stakes upset with I’ll Have Another lighting up the board at $88.60.

It has been said that while I’ll Have Another deserved to be a longshot in the Lewis, it was a bit silly the way he blew all the way out to 43-1. He did win his debut last summer, followed with a second to Grade 1 stakes winner Creative Cause in the Best Pal, and caught a wet track when a distant sixth in the Hopeful in his only other start. But even if I’ll Have Another didn’t deserve to be the rank outsider he wound up being, I admit I couldn’t make him even after the race. Last year’s Hopeful was a painfully slow race that up until now had proved to be, if anything, a negative key race. And I’ll Have Another hadn’t started in the five months since, and was making his first start around two turns in his return. But give I’ll Have Another credit. He was close to the strong early pace, he never saved any ground, and he simply ran away from everyone else.

I would like to get excited about Lewis runner up Empire Way, but I can’t. Not just yet, anyway. Royal Delta’s little brother rallied up the inside to be easily second best, but I think he finished ahead of a group that included several horses who just failed to show up. Most notable among those were CashCall Futurity winner and strong favorite Liaison, who was going nowhere when he lost his rider in a squeeze play in mid stretch, and second choice Rousing Sermon, who was completely without his customary late kick.

Expectations were lower for the Sam Davis. The favorite, presumably because of his link to trainer Todd Pletcher, was Ecabroni, who was coming off an average maiden sprint win at Gulfstream. The only two graded stakes winners in the field were Prospective, whose Grade 3 score came on Polytrack, and State of Play, whose Grade 2 victory came on turf. But even with reduced expectations, it doesn’t speak highly of the beaten field that a maiden after three starts handled them decisively. But we should also keep in mind that, for obvious reasons, Battle Hardened at least has a license to move forward off of this win.

As for Alpha, he beat pretty much the same kind of field in the Withers as he did in last month’s Count Fleet, and he did it pretty much the same way, which is to say with complete authority. The good news is Alpha got another confidence builder while gaining valuable experience. But while his paper is looking increasingly flashy, he remains unproven against serious company, and the sense is he still must raise his game.