02/10/2011 2:33PM

Weekend Warrior for Feb. 12, 2011

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NEW YORK – It happens every year around this time, and yet it is still always a pleasant surprise when it does. On Saturday, the road to the Kentucky Derby gets serious with three significant graded preps around two turns. They are the Grade 2, $250,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita, the Grade 3, $225,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, and the Grade 3, $200,000 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields.

There are, however, some interesting stakes on Saturday away from the Derby trail, most notably the Grade 2, $150,000 Santa Maria Stakes, the co-feature at Santa Anita, and the Grade 2, $150,000 Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship.

Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship

Soaring Empire might simply be too fast for his opponents in this spot. He has earned triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures in his last three starts, a streak no one else in this race can match. In fact, only two of his seven opponents Saturday have ever cracked the triple-digit Beyer barrier. Moreover, the Hal’s Hope Stakes that Soaring Empire won in his last start has already proven to be a very productive race. Runner up Rule and third-place finisher Morning Line came back to finish third and second, respectively, in last Saturday’s Donn Handicap, both earning Beyers of 102. Fourth-place finisher Tackleberry came back to upset the Sunshine Millions Classic with a 101 Beyer. And sixth and last-place finisher Caixa Eletronica came back to win an optional claimer with a 101 Beyer.

Still, even while acknowledging that Soaring Empire figures to be tough to beat, I’m going to try to do just that. Soaring Empire had a recency edge on Rule and Morning Line in the Hal’s Hope, and he got a sweet trip laying close to a pace that was not that fast. The pace in this race should be stronger, meaning Soaring Empire will have to come from farther back. Soaring Empire has won from well off the pace before, but he has not done it against horses of this caliber.

Tackleberry has had a busy schedule recently and is back yet again Saturday. And I can understand pulling for him as he represents the increasingly rare school of thought that says, “Run them when they get good.” But Tackleberry fell into an uncontested early lead in the Sunshine Millions when First Dude took back, and he doesn’t figure to get such a base on balls Saturday, especially cutting back from a route to a sprint.

I’m taking Guam Typhoon for the upset. Guam Typhoon showed earlier in his career that he has the quality to win a race like this when he was a close third in the 2009 Curlin Stakes behind Blame, winner, of course, of the Breeders’ Cup Classic and last year’s champion older male, and Gone Astray, who at the time was in monster form. Guam Typhoon is also very proficient at this seven-furlong distance, as he showed when narrowly beaten in the Super Stakes in Tampa early last year by Musket Man, who came back to miss by a nose in the Grade 1 Carter, and later was a sharp second to Quality Road in the Grade 1 Met Mile, and a sharp third behind Blame and Quality Road in the Grade 1 Whitney. Guam Typhoon’s last four starts were spaced quite far apart, suggesting he has had his issues. But I think he might have needed the race when fourth in a stakes last month in Tampa, he will like the added distance he gets here, and he is probably doing well physically since he is running back quicker than he has in a long time.

Santa Maria Stakes

In last year’s older female division there was, of course, Zenyatta, and then everyone else. But amongst the best of the rest was St Trinians. St Trinians was so impressive winning this race last year over 2009 Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic winner Life Is Sweet that she was favored against 13 males in the Big Cap (she finished sixth), and she then gave Zenyatta a huge scare in the Vanity Handicap. St Trinians makes her first start since that Vanity eight months ago here. But while she has a history of running very well fresh, I’m reluctant to take a horse who’s going to be favored off that lengthy a layoff while also making her first career start on dirt.

Given the lack of speed in this race, it wouldn’t surprise me if Mona de Momma got some support as this will be her first start beyond a sprint distance. But Mona de Momma will also be making her first start since her bias-aided win in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff nine months ago, and I think she will be a severe test for the big roll her trainer, John Sadler, is currently on.

Washington Bridge is the play. Washington Bridge has won three straight and is in by far the best form of her career. She showed a powerful late kick winning the Bayakoa Handicap last time out, and while it is true that Zardana (who is also in this race) had traffic trouble in the stretch when third as the favorite in the Bayakoa, Washington Bridge outkicked her, anyway. But as strong as Washington Bridge finished when she won the Bayakoa, she showed two starts back that she can be effective laying closer up early.

Pelleteri Stakes

It’s not hard to make a legitimate case for several of those in this race, but I like Third Dawn as I believe she is poised for a return to top form after a couple of outings that shouldn’t be held against her.

Third Dawn was a fair fourth most recently on turf, a surface she handles, but which likely isn’t her favorite. She now goes from grass to the main track and the last time she did that, she ripped off two wins at Del Mar. Two starts back, Third Dawn floundered in the Falls City Handicap on a sloppy track that was a new experience for her. But three starts back, Third Dawn was a solid second in the Chilukki Stakes in a performance that would be good enough to get the money here.

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