Weekend Lineup: Can First Round Of 100-Point Preps Clarify This Muddy Derby Picture?

This may well be one of the most confusing lead-ups to the Kentucky Derby in the history of the race. With just five weeks before the big dance, there is no clear favorite and many of the top candidates have serious questions surrounding either their fitness or ability to get the distance. Hopefully, this first round of 100-point prep races, consisting of the Louisiana and Florida Derbies, can help to clarify some of the best in this year's 3-year-old crop. However, each contest drew a large field with a number of maiden or allowance winners, and based on some of our recent prep results… well, anything can happen.

Kicking things off on Saturday is the G3 Appleton Stakes at Gulfstream Park, taking a field of seven over a mile on the turf course. Leading the group is top conditioner Todd Pletcher's All Included, a very good third (placed second on a DQ) in the G1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap last out. A pair of last-out allowance winners appear to be his main challengers, including Our Way and Delta Prince, the half brother to champion Royal Delta.

In Gulfstream's G3 Orchid Stakes, a small but talented field of five fillies and mares will go 1 3/8 miles on the turf course. Chad Brown's Olorda will look to get back on track after a poor race last out, while Maquette will make her first start stateside for trainer Bill Mott and owner/breeder Juddmonte.

Up next is the G2 Honey Fox Stakes at Gulfstream, in which fillies and mares go a mile on the turf. The $2.55 million Keeneland November purchase Celestine will make her second start for new connections, and is heavily favored in this spot. Ian Wilkes' Linda has won three of her last four starts, and will look to add another graded stakes victory to her resume.

Over in Louisiana, the G2 New Orleans Handicap features a solid field of older dirt horses for the nine-furlong test. Noble Bird should be the top of the group if he is at his best, though Hawaakom appears the likely choice to take advantage of any weakness of a strong performance behind Gun Runner at Oaklawn. Other top contenders include Eagle, International Star and Mo Town.

In the G2 Gulfstream Park Oaks, a field of nine sophomore fillies will compete for 100 points toward the Kentucky Oaks, contesting a distance of 1 1/16 miles on the main track. Leading the group is recent maiden winner Salty for trainer Mark Casse, though Tequilita has won her last three outs and will try two turns for the first time this season. Todd Pletcher entrant Nonna Bella is undefeated in two career starts, and is stepping into graded company for the first time with the most impressive numbers of the group.

Back at the Fair Grounds, the G2 Muniz Memorial Handicap is held at about nine furlongs on the turf course. Kasaqui appears the top choice, though it is a well-matched field and other probable selections include Oscar Nominated, Enterprising and Blarp. As always, the longshot pick goes to the Tim Glyshaw-trained Bullards Alley – this trainer has had a rough meet at the Fair Grounds and has placed the horse ambitiously, but a top effort from the gelding makes him a winner here, especially with a bit of rain on the course or a move to a muddy main track.

The G2 Fair Grounds Oaks is an intriguing field of sophomore fillies set for a 1 1/16 mile contest. Farrell has been unstoppable in each of her runs at the Fair Grounds this season, but ship-in Vexatious has the bloodlines and a recent test against the boys to make her a legitimate threat to the favorite.

In Gulfstream's G2 Pan American Stakes, held over 12 furlongs on the turf, Sadler's Joy is the top choice for trainer Tom Albertrani. He came up just a head short last out to fellow entrant Taghleeb, but a closer trip would put Sadler's Joy on top. Patterson Cross, third behind those two in the same race last out, will also be trying to turn the tables on his rivals.

Back to Fair Grounds, the G2 Louisiana Derby is the first Derby prep of the afternoon, offering 100 points to the winner of the nine-furlong test. Risen Star winner Girvin is back for more for trainer Joe Sharp, as is third-place finisher Local Hero. Guest Suite would seem the best suited to the distance but ran poorly in the Risen Star, and a pair of Todd Pletcher trainees ought to command respect at the windows as the trainer has been strikingly successful on this year's Derby trail.

Finally, the G1 Florida Derby closes out Saturday's graded stakes action. Fountain of Youth winner Gunnevera is the top choice for the 1 1/8-mile dirt contest at Gulfstream Park, but Todd Pletcher trainee Always Dreaming will look to add to that trainer's pattern of winning the G1 race with lightly-raced colts. State of Honor and Three Rules are likely to ensure a hot pace, though, so the odds seem positive that Gunnevera can prevail in the 11-horse field.

On Sunday, Aqueduct's G3 Top Flight Invitational features fillies and mares over nine furlongs on the main track. New York-bred Isabelle is the favorite after a big win last out over state breds, and will face just five others in this spot. Fillies with graded stakes experience include Mo'Green, second last out in the G2 Royal Delta, and Verve's Tale, winner of the G3 Comely last fall.

Santa Anita's G3 Tokyo City Cup is a 1 1/2-mile route on the main track on Sunday, featuring last year's winner Big John B making just his second start off a long layoff. Hard Aces loves a route of ground and will appreciate the class relief, and the Argentinian G1 winner Hi Happy should fair better with this greater distance.

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