Updated on 03/27/2011 9:39AM

Spiral Stakes can launch, end Kentucky Derby dreams


FLORENCE, Ky. – Springtime, and the dreaming is easy. Horsemen have flocked to Turfway Park with the notion that if you can just sneak one in here Saturday by winning the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes, anything could happen six weeks later in the Kentucky Derby.

“One day, we’re going to come back there and win the Derby, and I’m going to raise that trophy over my head like [Bob] Baffert does,” said trainer Doug O’Neill, laughing, but perhaps only half-kidding.

O’Neill, a perennial leader on the rugged Southern California circuit, has sent a California-bred colt named Thirtyfirststreet to Turfway in pursuit of that Derby dream. At 12-1 on the morning line for the Vinery Spiral, Thirtyfirststreet not only would have to overcome those odds but even greater ones come the 137th Derby on May 7, judging by how the field for the 40th Spiral, on balance, is rather undistinguished.

SPIRAL STAKES DAY: Marty McGee's video stakes previews - watch Saturday's races live

None of the 12 3-year-olds entered in the Spiral has yet accumulated sufficient graded stakes earnings to make the Derby cut, but with a Grade 3 ranking and $500,000 purse, the winner almost surely will have a spot in the Derby gate. Positive Response (click link for Contender Profile) is the lukewarm 3-1 program favorite to follow up his recent victory in the John Battaglia Memorial with another Turfway triumph, but the Northern California-based gelding seems to be in a much tougher spot than last out.

Therein lies part of a prickly handicapping rub for the Spiral, the annual showcase event at beleaguered Turfway, where a long four months of winter racing comes to a happier close with the return of better horses to the Kentucky circuit. Positive Response, with Julien Couton back aboard, is eligible to fire out early from post 2 when trying to duplicate his dominating Battaglia score, but new shooters such as Decisive Moment, in from south Florida, and New York shippers Preachintothedevil or Rescind the Trade could challenge him a long way, perhaps setting things up for a closer in this 1 1/8-mile Polytrack race.

Of course, one of those front-runners could keep marching on to victory – or, if the grass-to-synthetic angle proves successful again, as it did in this race in 2008 with Adriano and last year with Dean’s Kitten, then it could be a late rally from a turfer to finish off the job. And there is no shortage of horses in here with those kinds of credentials: Animal Kingdom, King Congie, and Beachcombing all exit quality races on the Gulfstream Park turf, while several other Spiral starters have done a fair amount of racing on non-dirt surfaces and also would not qualify as a major surprise.

One other Gulfstream turf horse, King Congie, was to be scratched as the second morning-line choice after incurring a strained hind leg during a routine gallop Friday morning at Turfway.

Beachcombing, trained by Chad Brown, seems pretty typical of the Spiral spirit, wherein a trainer isn’t quite sure of whether or not he has a 3-year-old of Derby caliber, but circumstances have arisen to take a worthwhile shot. Beachcombing has just three career starts, all on turf, with the latest resulting in a sharp runner-up finish in a first-level Gulfstream allowance.

“I haven’t always been able to decide what to do with the horse,” Brown said. “I’m not sure about the synthetic with him, but the purse is very tempting.”

The Spiral, first run in 1972, has been known by a variety of names, including the Jim Beam (1982-98) and the Lane’s End Stakes (2000-10), with Vinery assuming sponsorship this year. The race has become a welcome rite of spring for thousands of local sports fans, with upward of 20,000 ontrack fans typically in attendance.

The Spiral, the 10th of 12 races, is the fifth and last stakes on the Saturday program, which reverts to daytime racing with a first post of 1:10 p.m. Eastern. Television Games Network, with hosts Greg Wolf, Donna Barton Brothers, and Michelle Yu, will provide onsite coverage throughout the day, including a live running of the Spiral at 5:31. Live online streaming of the Spiral also is available at DRF.com.

Although it’s free on other days, general admission Saturday is $10, with reserved seating additional. The weather forecast for raceday calls for cloudy skies and a high temperature of 47.