02/18/2010 12:00AM

Cherokee Queen tough off latest

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NEW YORK - The road to the Kentucky Derby takes a serious turn Saturday, with five stakes races for 3-year-olds offering opportunity for graded earnings, which can be critical when it comes to securing a starting spot in the Derby.

The 3-year-old stakes at Gulfstream Park are the Grade 2, $250,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes and Grade 2, $150,000 Hutcheson Stakes. Also on Gulfstream's card are a pair of Grade 3 turf stakes, the Canadian Turf and Honey Fox Stakes.

The Grade 2, $300,000 Risen Star Stakes for Derby aspirants is the main event at Fair Grounds, but there also are five other stakes on that track's program, including a trio of Grade 3 races: the Silverbulletday, the Fair Grounds Handicap, and the Mineshaft Handicap.

The rescheduled Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest Stakes, a victim of a card at Oaklawn Park last Monday that was abbreviated by bad weather, and the Grade 3, $150,000 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate are the other graded stakes for 3-year-olds Saturday.

And if that isn't enough, Gio Ponti, last year's champion older male and turf male, begins his 2010 campaign Saturday in the $150,000 Tampa Bay Breeders' Cup Stakes.

Honey Fox Stakes

Five in the main body of this race come out of the Marshua's River Stakes, including that race's winner, Quiet Harbor, and dead-heat runner up Romacaca. But even though Quiet Harbor is on a big roll - the Marshua's River was her fifth straight victory - she has a brutal post position to deal with here, having to break from the 13 hole with a short run to the first turn. And Romacaca, who set the pace in the Marshua's River before being nipped by Quiet Harbor, has more pace pressure to deal with this time, namely Wasted Tears, who has absolutely no choice but to go from the 14 hole.

Beyond that, I question just how strong a race the Marshua's River really was. This is something every handicapper should ask of any race that has only two lengths separating the first and the eighth finishers, as was the case in the Marshua's River. The only one coming out of the Marshua's River who I could possibly give a pass to was Backseat Rhythm. Although I admit I liked Backseat Rhythm in the Marshua's River and was disappointed when she didn't kick home and finished seventh, she had a terrible post that day and was coming off a seven-month absence. But the one-mile distance of this race just seems too short for Backseat Rhythm.

I wanted a new face in this spot, and that is Cherokee Queen. Cherokee Queen is stepping up, but the 93 Beyer Speed Figure she earned winning an optional claimer most recently was three points higher than Quiet Harbor's winning Beyer in the Marshua's River. Cherokee Queen finished strongly in her last two starts - she went her final five-sixteenths last time out in 28.68 seconds and went her last quarter-mile when second two starts back in 22.10 - and her closing style fits the anticipated pace scenario. Moreover, Cherokee Queen really likes the Gulfstream turf course. Not only has she finished second or better in all four of her starts over the surface, the three highest Beyers of her career have come on Gulfstream's turf.

Fair Grounds Handicap

Selfishly, I hope Giant Oak runs in this race instead of the Mineshaft Handicap, which he also was entered in. Although Giant Oak has a better chance to win this race than he does the Mineshaft and could make me sorry for what I'm wishing for, he is, in this spot, just the kind of potential favorite worth betting against. Giant Oak is making his first start for a new barn off a three-month layoff, and I feel he is going to need this race. Additionally, I wonder if Giant Oak is even as proficient on turf, which this race is scheduled to be run on, as he is on dirt. Granted, Giant Oak's one win last year came on turf in the Arlington Classic. But that race was simply not as good either Beyer-wise or class-wise as some of his dirt performances, such as his seconds in the Illinois and Indiana derbies or his fourth in the Clark Handicap.

Blues Street is the play. Blues Street, like Cherokee Queen in the Honey Fox, is stepping up from the overnight level, but he's in sharp form right now having won two straight and has a history of stringing top efforts together. Blues Street's most recent score at Gulfstream was particularly good. After racing his third quarter-mile in 22.85, he sped home his final quarter in 22.72. That means he went his final half-mile in 45.57, which is way okay in my book.

Risen Star Stakes

I have had a love-hate relationship with Discreetly Mine. I really liked his maiden win last summer at Saratoga, and I thought his second in the Futurity was quite good, considering the difficult trip he had. I didn't like his second in the subsequent Champagne because I thought he had no business losing that race, and even though he missed the break, I didn't care for his dull fourth last time in the Spectacular Bid on a wet track he should have loved. But I am with Discreetly Mine this time. I think he's going to relish the stretch out to two turns; he's certainly bred for it. And the added distance will enable him to be a major pace player, which is his best running style.

Another reason to join up again with Discreetly Mine is doubts I have about some of the other prominent entrants, such as Ron the Greek and Tempted to Tapit. Ron the Greek got an ideal set up when he won the Lecomte last time out, and it's tough to trust Tempted to Tapit's big-figure maiden win because it came on a wet track.