03/29/2010 11:00PM

Battle Plan looks set to wire field


NEW YORK - We're at the point in the year where the meets at many of the winter tracks will soon be ending, which means the biggest racing days of these meets are at hand. This was the case last week when it was Florida Derby Day at Gulfstream Park and is the case Saturday at Fair Grounds and Turfway Park.

At Fair Grounds, it is Louisiana Derby Day, with that Grade 2, $750,000 stepping-stone to the Kentucky Derby heading a card that also includes five other stakes events. Among the other stakes Saturday at Fair Grounds are a pair of Grade 2, $300,000 handicaps, the New Orleans and the Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial on turf.

At Turfway Park, it is another Kentucky Derby prep that anchors the biggest day of that track's winter meet, the Grade 2, $500,000 Lane's End Stakes. There are five other stakes on this card, chief among them the Grade 3, $125,000 Bourbonette Oaks.

The other graded stakes on Saturday's schedule are a pair of Grade 3 events, the $150,000 Pan American at Gulfstream Park and the $100,000 Tokyo City Cup at Santa Anita.

Oh yes, Saturday also is the day that the richest Thoroughbred race in the world will be run, that of course being the $10 million Dubai World Cup. This race might be a half-world away, but a marquee entrant is the U.S.'s Gio Ponti, a two-time Eclipse Award winner last year.

New Orleans Handicap

There are a handful of possible winners in this race, and I suppose morning-line favorite Awesome Gem has to be included as one. But even though Awesome Gem is moving back to dirt, the surface on which he has won the most, even on his best day he seems to prefer finishing second to winning. And I always try to beat horses like that.

Speaking of finishing second, General Quarters has done that in all three of his starts at the Fair Grounds meet. While he had excuses in the first two of those starts - not enough distance first time back, taken off a slow pace second start back - I thought he had no business losing the Mineshaft Handicap last time out, so I'm going against him.

Giant Oak finished third in the Mineshaft in his first start back off a three-month layoff and is expected to improve off that effort. The trouble is, I'm just not sure he's good enough in this spot, even with improvement.

Battle Plan has never even run in a stakes race, so some folks will probably question whether he, too, is good enough. In my mind, however, Battle Plan is more than good enough and is taken to wire this group.

Battle Plan was cut out to be a good horse, being by Empire Maker out of champion Flanders, but the 5-year-old has obviously had his share of physical issues as this will mark only the fifth start of his career. However, he has won his last three starts by a total of 16 lengths, and it appears his physical troubles are behind him for the first time, allowing him to put starts back to back.

Not surprisingly, given his pedigree, Battle Plan exploded in his first attempt around two turns most recently, running away with an allowance race at Gulfstream Park and earning a 109 Beyer Speed Figure that is better than anything any of his more accomplished and seasoned opponents here have ever earned. What is even more impressive is that Battle Plan won off and ran fast after disputing a pace that appeared to be extremely quick given how dead the Gulfstream track was that day in the early races. This suggests that Battle Plan is more than fast enough early to control this race from the outset.

Pan American Stakes

Winchester ran very well when second last time out in the Mac Diarmida to Presious Passion, one of America's best turf horses. Then again, Winchester has run well in his last four starts, but that didn't help him close the deal next time out. In fact, Winchester hasn't actually won a race since he galloped in his U.S. debut in the Secretariat Stakes more than 20 months ago. So while Winchester might be capable of winning this race, I couldn't take him off that long a drought as the potential favorite.

I'm going with Expansion, who was a solid third choice in the betting behind Winchester in the Mac Diarmida but didn't show much and finished a soundly beaten fifth. In his defense, Expansion was coming off a near three-month layoff and he might not have been as ready as Winchester. But Expansion does hail from a barn that has excellent numbers with runners making their second starts back off such layoffs. I expect Expansion to return to the form he showed two starts back when he won the Red Smith Handicap with an overpowering finish, besting the multiple Grade 1 winner Grand Couturier.

Louisiana Derby

Thanks to Wow Wow Wow and the stretch-out sprinters A Little Warm and Backtrack, the early pace here figures to be much stronger than it was when Discreetly Mine parlayed control of a slow pace into a hard-fought win in last month's local springboard to this, the Risen Star Stakes. For that reason, the late-runners who were compromised by the slow fractions in the Risen Star - Drosselmeyer, Stay Put, and Ron the Greek - have a better chance this time.

Of the three, I prefer Stay Put and not just because he is expected to be the longest price of the three. Stay Put doesn't appear as one-paced as Drosselmeyer and has never gotten the kind of perfect setup that Ron the Greek got when he won the Lecomte. In fact, prior to his fifth in the Risen Star, Stay Put won two route races at Fair Grounds from off the pace, despite slow fractions.