Although the new year is already a month old, the 1997 racing season kicks into high gear today with top races on both coasts for Kentucky Derby aspirants and older horses -- as well as with a tribute to a beloved champion.
At Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla., a life-sized statue of Cigar will be unveiled about 4: 35 p.m. -- and televised live on ESPN. The broadcast also includes the first live races of the year, the Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream and the Strub Stakes at Santa Anita Park.
Acclaimed sculptress Cindy Wolf completed the bronze in six months -- a rush job commissioned by Douglas Donn, president of Gulfstream Park, who wanted the statue ready for the current meet. The statue will stand near the track's paddock in the Garden of Champions, which features 83 plaques of champions who raced at Gulfstream.
Then ESPN will focus on future champions in the $100,000, seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes, in which Ordway, the beaten favorite in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Woodbine, begins his run to the Triple Crown classics. His foes today include the probable pacesetter Confide, the winner on Jan. 5 of the Spectacular Bid Stakes at Gulfstream.
Despite finishing third at Woodbine behind Boston Harbor and Acceptable, the David Donk-trained Ordway is the early Kentucky Derby favorite by many handicappers.
On the West Coast, Boston Harbor, a champion 2-year-old, debuts as a 3-year-old at Santa Anita in the $100,000, 1 1/16-mile Santa Catalina Stakes. Owned by William T. Young and trained by D. Wayne Lukas, the Capote colt set a North American earnings record as a juvenile of $1,928,605.
Young said Boston Harbor will take the California route toward the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May. The Santa Catalina, which also showcases Swiss Yodeler, winner last year of six of nine starts, is the first major prep for the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 5.
Also at Santa Anita today, Alphabet Soup, winner of the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic -- in which Cigar raced for the last time, finishing third -- begins the new year in the $300,000, 1 1/8 -mile San Antonio Handicap.
But pay attention to Alphabet Soup's top competitor, Argentine-bred Gentlemen. His jockey, Gary Stevens, was quoted in the Orange County Register as saying:
"I think Gentlemen already is in the same class as Cigar. It's hard to do, because it's like comparing Secretariat to Cigar. But I'll tell you this: From what I've seen of Gentlemen and what I felt the last two times I was on him, I wouldn't be afraid to take on Cigar, in his prime, at any distance, on any surface."
Finally at Santa Anita, the $500,000, 1 1/4 -mile Strub Stakes, a Grade I race for 4-year-olds, marks the year's first appearance of the unpredictable Editor's Note, winner of last year's Belmont.
Preakness hopefuls at Laurel
Laurel Park offers a trial today for 3-year-olds who perhaps won't make the trip to Churchill Downs in early May, but may journey up the road to Pimlico on May 17 for the Preakness.
Five colts are entered in the $50,000, seven-furlong Horatius Stakes -- Stormy Cloud, Fearless Play, Bullet Valay, Saintly and Dr. Best.
Richard W. Delp, trainer of Stormy Cloud, a winner Dec. 26 of the Maryland Juvenile Championship, said Friday that he was undecided whether to run his Smarten colt today or wait until Saturday for the $50,000, 1/16-mile Whirlaway Stakes at Aqueduct.
The Pimlico-based John J. Tammaro III, trainer of Concerto, plans to race the 3-year-old Chief's Crown colt in the Whirlaway. George Steinbrenner owns Concerto, as well as Acceptable, who resides at Gulfstream Park in trainer Nick Zito's barn.
"Mr. Steinbrenner would love to win the Kentucky Derby," Tammaro said. "But Concerto is his second string at this point.
"My horse's performance [in the Whirlaway] will determine which way he goes. But anybody who's got a 3-year-old that can run this time of year has got the Kentucky Derby in the back of their mind."
3 Maryland threats
Other 3-year-olds with Maryland connections aimed for the classics are Smoke Glacken, Captain Bodgit and Traitor.
Stabled at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, the Maryland-bred Smoke Glacken is still on target for Saturday's six-furlong Mountain Valley Stakes at Oaklawn Park. His trainer and part-owner, Henry Carroll, said the next step would be March 1 in the one-mile Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn, and then March 16 in the 1 1/16-mile Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds.
Captain Bodgit, handled by Bowie-based Gary Capuano, is still being trained in Florida for the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 22 at Gulfstream. And Pimlico-based Mary Eppler, training Traitor for Alfred G. Vanderbilt, is also in Florida, looking to run his top-rated colt at Gulfstream in a mid-March allowance race.
Jockey back after spill