Friday's opening of Oaklawn Park means all the major winter venues for thoroughbred racing will be open and we are less than four months from the Kentucky Derby.
Another sign that the road to the Triple Crown is clear for traffic is The Sports Network's Jeff Frank has released his initial "Dirty Dozen" of Run for the Roses prospects. Jeff, of course, gave everybody I'll Have Another for last year's Kentucky Derby, which means there's added pressure on him to repeat. Let's hope he meets the challenge.
On Saturday, a pair of early Derby prep races will be held, one each in Florida and California. Tampa Bay Downs has the $100,000 Pasco Stakes with the $100,000 California Derby going off at Golden Gate Fields.
Topping the field of 10 in the seven-furlong Pasco is local stakes winner Purple Egg. Owned by Goodwood Racing II, Purple Egg will be making a belated 2013 debut on Saturday after being scratched from the Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year's Day.
The undefeated gelding captured the Inaugural Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Dec. 1 in a stakes-record time of 1:09.93 for six furlongs. The Pasco will be his first attempt at beyond six furlongs, but has ability to come from off the pace.
"It's great to see him move up in stakes company and rate well, come from off the pace and finish up strongly," co-owner Margo Flynn said following the Inaugural win.
He won his debut race in August at Monmouth Park by 4 3/4 lengths and followed with an allowance victory at Parx Racing drawing away for a 6 3/4-length win.
Trained by Jane Cibelli, Purple Egg will be ridden by Joe Rocco Jr. from post 5.
Three weeks after the Pasco comes the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay. The $250,000 Davis is followed by the $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby on March 9. Both are conducted at 1 1/16 miles.
Going for a sixth win in the 1 1/16-mile California Derby will be Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. The long-time Golden Gate conditioner saddled Russian Greek to victory in last year's edition and has Hall of Fame jockey Russell Baze riding Zeewat on Saturday.
Zeewat, who will break from post 3 in the seven-horse field, is coming off a 3 1/4-length victory in the Gold Rush Stakes on Dec. 8 at Golden Gate after finishing third in the track's Golden Nugget Stakes on Nov. 10.
"He has a nice way of traveling, and when I set him down he extended his stride and away he went. I never thought distance would be a problem for him," noted Baze after taking the Gold Rush.
Co-owned by Hollendorfer, Zeewat won his first two starts, including the Cavonnier Juvenile Stakes at Santa Rosa on Aug. 12.
In his only race without Baze in the saddle, the colt was fourth to the favored Merit Man in Santa Anita's Tim Conway Stakes on Oct. 6. Joe Talamo had the mount that day.
In five weeks, comes the 1 1/8-mile El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate.