NEW YORK -- The road is long, and nobody said it was easy. But for 3-year-old thoroughbreds across the country -- no, the world -- the journey is drawing to a close.
Today, in major races in Kentucky, Arkansas and New York, 34 horses will take their final strides in competition along the road that leads to America's spring classics: the Kentucky Derby May 6 at Churchill Downs, the Preakness May 20 at Pimlico and the Belmont June 10 at Belmont Park.
For some, such as Mighty, Snuck In and Fusaichi Pegasus, the races today are minor hurdles to overcome; their Derby tickets are punched. But for others, such as Wheelaway (winner of the Tampa Bay Derby), Elite Mercedes (Elliott Walden's only hope for the Derby) and Postponed (owned by part-time Marylanders Jinny Vance and Laddie Dance), the day marks the last chance to prove their merit.
At 4: 45 this afternoon, in the Grade II, $750,000 Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct here in Queens, a dozen horses will compete in the day's most intriguing race. Showcasing Fusaichi Pegasus, one of the most highly touted 3- year-olds in years, the 1 1/8-mile Wood also features the undefeated Red Bullet, the hard-charging Aptitude and the underrated Exchange Rate.
They could all make a splash in the Derby, although bettors can't always rely on results from prep races for Derby indicators.
In the Wood, for instance, Red Bullet will seek his fourth win in as many tries. But his trainer, Joe Orseno, says a victory is not mandatory.
"Three weeks before the Derby, you don't want a race that knocks your horse out," Orseno said. "I'm not saying I don't want to win the Wood, but I'd sure hate to see him at the top of the stretch head-to-head with another horse dueling to the wire."
At 5: 25 p.m., the Grade I, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland features the best 3-year-olds from Florida, Hal's Hope and High Yield, and the Louisiana Derby winner, Mighty.
After winning the Florida Derby, Hal's Hope is 1 1/8 miles from taking his 88-year-old trainer, owner and breeder, Harold J. Rose, to the Kentucky Derby. There, Rose will likely share top billing with Jenine Sahadi, trainer of The Deputy. She could become the first female trainer to win the Derby.
The Deputy won the Santa Anita Derby last weekend at Santa Anita Park. Four of the six horses in that race will make the trip to Churchill Downs: The Deputy, War Chant, Captain Steve and Anees.
At 5: 45 p.m., in the Grade II, $500,000 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, 14 horses will contend for Kentucky Derby berths, including Elite Mercedes, Polish Miner, Scottish Halo (the Laurel Futurity winner) and True Confidence. D. Wayne Lukas trains True Confidence as well as High Yield in the Blue Grass and Exchange Rate in the Wood.
Trained by Steve Asmussen and ridden by his brother, Cash, Snuck In is the morning-line favorite in Arkansas. He has never finished worse than third in eight races. A Florida-bred son of Montbrook, he won the Rebel Stakes three weeks ago at Oaklawn.
Also today, in the $250,000 California Derby at Golden Gate Fields, eight second-tier 3-year-olds will try to earn their way into the Kentucky Derby.
And next Saturday, at Nad al Sheba Racecourse halfway around the world in Dubai, Godolphin Racing's Derby contenders, China Visit and Chief Seattle, will compete one last time before venturing to Kentucky for this country's greatest race.