NEW YORK - By dinner time tonight, the country's racing fans will have a pretty clear picture of the field for the Kentucky Derby in three weeks at Churchill Downs.
As likely favorite Point Given waits (and plays) at Santa Anita Park in Southern California, 32 horses will run in four races across the country in final tune-ups - or last chances - for this country's most celebrated race.
David Hofmans, preparing Millennium Wind for the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, uttered the best line about this busy day for blossoming 3-year-old thoroughbreds.
"It's the day of reckoning," Hofmans told the Daily Racing Form. "On Easter morning, some people are going to wake up and say, `Let's go hunt some eggs,' instead of going for mint juleps."
Here at Aqueduct in Queens, the East's top Derby prospect, Monarchos, heads a field of six in the $750,000 Wood Memorial Stakes. At Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., six major Derby contenders square off in the seven-horse, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes.
At Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., the budding star Balto Star attempts to repeat recent brilliance in the $500,000 Arkansas Derby. And at Bay Meadows in Northern California, Early Flyer and Startac, after being scratched from last weekend's Santa Anita Derby, seek fulfillment of early promise in the $200,000 California Derby.
The four races are 1 1/8 miles, timely stepping stones to the Kentucky Derby's 1 1/4 miles.
"That mile and an eighth starts to separate these horses," trainer Bob Baffert said. "We'll know soon enough who the real deals are."
Baffert trains one, Point Given, powerful winner of the Santa Anita Derby. He may also train a second, Congaree. A flashy son of Arazi, the lightly raced Congaree steps into stakes company for the first time in the Wood.
As Baffert flew Thursday from Southern California to New York, Point Given repeated past antics at Santa Anita. The rambunctious colt reared, threw his rider and romped back to the barn.
"It was enough to give everybody a heart attack," Baffert said.
With one definite Derby starter, albeit a playful one, Baffert hopes to emerge from the Wood with a second. Congaree has raced only three times, winning the past two impressively, but Baffert said the chestnut runner rivals Point Given in ability.
Congaree faces the battle-tested Monarchos, who won the Florida Derby with an explosive thrust that one month later still inspires awe. Monarchos' trainer, John Ward Jr., said the son of Maria's Mon is fit, sharp and ready for the Wood.
Overlooked is Richly Blended, easy winner of all three of his races - two at Laurel Park by a combined 22 3/4 lengths and the Gotham Stakes by 5 1/4 lengths. His New York trainer, Ben Perkins Jr., acknowledged that the Rizzi colt is bred for speed.
"I'm sure we'll eventually find that he has distance limitations," Perkins said. "I just hope it doesn't happen [in the Wood]."
At Keeneland, the Blue Grass features four horses among the Daily Racing Form's top six Derby contenders and six among the top 14. Ward, who will be in New York saddling Monarchos, also trains Hero's Tribute, one of the Blue Grass hotshots.
"If you're within two lengths of winning the Blue Grass," Ward said, "I think you're a legitimate Derby candidate. I think it's that strong of a field."
Nick Zito, two-time winner of the Blue Grass and Kentucky Derby, sends out A P Valentine at Keeneland. The son of A.P. Indy lost training because of sore shins. But in a stunning comeback three weeks ago at Hialeah Park, A P Valentine shattered the track record for 1 1/16 miles in an optional claiming race.
The probable favorite in the Blue Grass is Dollar Bill, who clipped heels and nearly fell in his last race, the Louisiana Derby. Under jockey Pat Day he recovered and charged to the wire, finishing fourth.
Said Day: "In the words of Dallas Stewart [his trainer], `He entered the race a boy, but came out a man.' He's mentally ready for this race."
NOTE: The Wood Memorial (post time 5:12 p.m.) is the first race of the national Big 3 Pick 3, which includes the Blue Grass (post time 5:33 p.m.) and Arkansas Derby (post time 5:49 p.m.). The three races will be televised live on ESPN during its coverage beginning at 5 p.m.
The field for the Wood Memorial (post-position order with trainer, jockey and odds):
Paging (Robert Connors, C.C. Lopez, 30-1), Monarchos (John Ward Jr., Jorge Chavez, 4-5), Voodoo (James Jerkens, Herbert Castillo Jr., 20-1), It's So Simple (Nick Zito, Aaron Gryder, 10-1), Congaree (Bob Baffert, Victor Espinoza, 8-5) and Richly Blended (Ben Perkins Jr., Rick Wilson, 5-1).
The field for the Blue Grass (post-position order with trainer, jockey and odds):
Invisible Ink (Todd Pletcher, John Velazquez, 3-1), Millennium Wind (David Hofmans, Laffit Pincay Jr., 4-1), Hero's Tribute (John Ward Jr., Jerry Bailey, 3-1), Dollar Bill (Dallas Stewart, Pat Day, 9-5), Bonnie Scot (Roger Anderson, Greta Kuntzweiler, 30-1), Songandaprayer (John Dowd, Edgar Prado, 6-1) and A P Valentine (Nick Zito, Corey Nakatani, 5-2).