03/10/2011 1:21PM

Weekend Warrior for March 12


Santa Anita has an outstanding edition of the Grade 1, $300,000 Santa Margarita Invitational, and the Grade 2, $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap is a most intriguing event. But the spotlight Saturday, as on most Saturdays this time of year, falls squarely on the 3-year-olds hoping to make the Kentucky Derby. And this particular Saturday is a very important day for this group.

Uncle Mo, the undefeated Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and champion 2-year-old male, and the universal morning-line favorite for the Kentucky Derby, makes his eagerly awaited 3-year-old debut in one of two stakes on Gulfstream’s undercard, the $100,000 Timely Writer. Across the Florida peninsula, at Tampa Bay Downs, Uncle Mo’s undefeated barnmate, Brethren, goes in the Grade 2, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby. And last but not least, Santa Anita’s co-feature, the Grade 2, $250,000 San Felipe Stakes, affords West Coast 3-year-olds the last local prep for the Santa Anita Derby. Big day, indeed.

Gulfstream Park Handicap

Tackleberry and Soaring Empire, the one-two finishers last time out in the Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship, will have their share of backers here, but I’m going against both. Tackleberry, who also won the Sunshine Millions Turf Classic two starts back when he inherited an uncontested lead as a result of First Dude’s taking back at the start, has had a busy schedule lately. Tackleberry looked all out at the end of the Sprint Championship, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he suffers a form regression. As for Soaring Empire, he ran well winning the Hal’s Hope at this one mile distance two starts back, but I feel the recency edge he had that day was a major factor in his score.

Considering he was second in the Wood Memorial, Fountain of Youth, and Holy Bull, and third in the Preakness last year, and is now reunited with trainer Stanley Gold, for whom he was a prolific winner as a juvenile, Jackson Bend might get attention here. But in truth, you have to go back 10 months on Jackson Bend to find a race that can win this.

Rule will take a lot of beating here. Rule had been away 10 months when a sharp second to Soaring Empire in the Hal’s Hope, and was a game third most recently in the Donn Handicap. And while it is true that Rule lost the place in the Donn to an opponent in Morning Line who disputed a strong early pace, Morning Line had a rail trip and Rule raced three to four wide, which cost him. But even with the cutback in distance Saturday enhancing Rule’s case, I’m taking Tizway.

The main concern I have with Tizway is the Gulfstream stats of his trainer, James Bond. Over the last five years, Bond has had 46 starters at Gulfstream, which isn’t a lot, but won only three races. Two of those wins were with the turf stakes mare Hostess in 2007, and the other with a maiden in 2008. But Bond has started only 10 horses there the last two meets, and unlike Hostess, or Tizway, for that matter, none was a stakes horse.

Otherwise, Tizway takes a back seat to no one here. He was an excellent third to the top class Quality Road in last year’s Met Mile, and was so impressive winning the Kelso Handicap last fall off a four-month layoff that he was sent off the second choice of 12 in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. And though Tizway finished fifth in that race, his effort was better than it might appear. Tizway raced mostly in the two path, and on the rail late, over a track that was biased toward wide runners.

Hillsborough Stakes

This is one of two stakes on the Tampa Bay Derby undercard, and it is an interesting betting race. Cherokee Queen ran big winning the Suwanee River Stakes last time out, an effort that was flattered when runner-up Never Retreat came back and won last Saturday’s Grade 3 Honey Fox. But Marty Wolfson, who trains Cherokee Queen, hasn’t had much luck in Tampa lately. Keertana was a close third in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf and won both of her starts since. But the The Very One Stakes she won most recently was a weird race with a walking pace, and the cutback from 11 to nine furlongs could be problematic. Askbut I Won’ttell recent form is solid, but was fashioned against lesser company.

Zagora is my play. Zagora, who won two Group 3 stakes in France last year, finished strongly when second in Keeneland’s Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup last fall. Zagora was no threat to Harmonious, who ran out of her mind that day, but she did get second from Evening Jewel, who in her prior five starts won two Grade 1 races and two Grade 2 stakes, and was beaten a nose in the Kentucky Oaks. Zagora now adds Lasix and goes for the dangerous Chad Brown barn, which is very good with layoff horses like this.

San Felipe Stakes

I have this race between Jaycito, who won the Grade 1 Norfolk last fall, and Runflatout, who won only a maiden race in his one start, and I’m going with Runflatout for the following reasons: Although Jaycito’s running line and distant seventh-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile looks ugly, he actually showed real ability finishing well after bolting late on the first turn and then seemingly sulking for a while after that. But until Jaycito proves that was a one-time thing, I can’t really trust him. And while I admit to being a Runflatout fan, I am that because I believe he showed rare talent in his fast debut score.

As for the other Kentucky Derby preps Saturday, I would be disappointed if Uncle Mo didn’t come back with a big win in the Timely Writer, although I do think one of his opponents, Rattlesnake Bridge, will turn out to be a nice colt. In Tampa, I acknowledge that Brethren has every right to take a big step forward off his victory in the Sam Davis Stakes over the track in his first start this year, but he will be a heavy favorite without yet having run fast or beaten good company. I will take Free Entry, who so far is just as fast as Brethren, and who will be a better price.