Special to The Plain Dealer
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Spring training is not only for baseball players.
Thoroughbred racehorses are also stretching their legs and attempting to fine tune their strides with one goal in mind — the Kentucky Derby on May 7.
The search for the next American Pharoah picks up speed Saturday with two major prep races. The $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs and the $400,000 San Felipe at Santa Anita, kick off a series of 12 preps over the next in six weeks.
All the races, including the $2 million UAE Derby from Meydan Racecourse in Dubai on March 26, can be watched and wagered on at Northfield Park and ThistleDown.
American Pharoah’s sweep of last year’s Derby, Preakness and Belmont ended a 36-year Triple Crown drought, the last of the 12 treble champions being Affirmed in 1978.
Should another three-year-old reprise the bay colt’s stirring performance, it would mark only the second time in pari-mutuel history that racing celebrated back-to-back Triple Crown champions. Seattle Slew wore the crown the year before Affirmed did.
The leader of the pack this year is the undefeated Mohaymen, a $2.2 million auction ring purchase who has won five times, his latest triumph coming in the Feb. 27 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park.
Considered his main rival is Nyquist, voted last year’s Eclipse Award as North America’s champion juvenile colt after a perfect five-race campaign that included a driving half-length score in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Nyquist opened his 2016 account by showing speed and dueling early before drawing clear in the Feb. 15 San Vicente at Santa Anita.
If both colts remain healthy, railbirds will be treated to a rare pre-Kentucky Derby showdown as Mohaymen and Nyquist are being pointed for the April 2 $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.
Other leading contenders on the Triple Crown trail include Gun Runner, winner of the Feb. 20 Risen Star and now being trained for the March 26 Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, and Shagaf, winner of last week’s Gotham at Aqueduct in New York. The latter is a late developing colt. Like Mohaymen, he is owned by Shadwell Stable, and will likely get his final Derby prep in the April 9 Wood Memorial, also at Aqueduct.
Mor Spirit, trained by Bob Baffert, who developed American Pharoah, is among the seven entrants in the 1 1/16 mile San Felipe. He’s a winner of three of five starts, including the Feb. 6 Robert Lewis. Mor Spirit’s main foe in the San Felipe could be Exaggerator, who finished second to Nyquist in the San Vicente.
Brody’s Cause, cobwebs and all, is the 5-2 morning line favorite over nine rivals to win the Tampa Bay Derby. A winner of two of four career starts, he hasn’t started since finishing third, beaten 2 ¾ lengths by Nyquist in the BC Juvenile. Also entered at Tampa is Awesome Banner, who seeks to rebound from a poor showing in the Fountain of Youth when beaten 26 lengths by Mohaymen.
TRIPLE CROWN TRAIL
Saturday – $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby, Tampa Bay Downs
Saturday – $400,000 San Felipe, Santa Anita
March 19 – $500,000 Rebel Stakes, Oaklawn Park
March 26 – $1,000,000 Louisiana Derby, Fair Grounds
March 26 – $2,000,000 UAE Derby, Meydan (Dubai)
April 2 – $1,000,000 Florida Derby, Gulfstream Park
April 2 – $500,000 Spiral Stakes, Turfway Park
April 9 – $1,000,000 Wood Memorial, Aqueduct
April 9 – $1,000,000 Blue Grass Stakes, Keeneland
April 9 – $1,000,000 Santa Anita Derby, Santa Anita
April 16 – $200,000 Lexington Stakes, Keeneland
April 16 – $1,000,000 Arkansas Derby, Oaklawn Park