Animal Kingdom was a relatively unknown commodity entering last year's Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes, but his victory launched him into the Kentucky Derby -- and the rest is history.
It remains to be seen what effect the March 24 Spiral Stakes will have on the 2012 Derby, but a large field of 12 was entered for Turfway Park's signature race and at least one of the winners should be moving on to Louisville six weeks from now. All 12 of the horses entered in the $500,000 Polytrack event are in need of graded earnings in order to get their Derby shot, and with no graded stakes winner in the field it seems like a pretty wide-open affair.
Post time for the 1 1/8-mile Spiral is set for 5:45 p.m. EDT. It is one of four 3-year-olds stakes on the 12-race program, which also includes the Bourbonette Oaks for sophomore fillies, and a pair of ungraded events for males -- the 1 1/16-mile Rushaway and the six-furlong Hansel stakes.
By Giant's Causeway , Heavy Breathing was originally being pointed to a career on turf -- and still might be -- but in his Feb. 8 debut at Gulfstream the maiden special weight in which he was entered was rained off the turf. The chestnut colt wound up winning on the main track by nearly eight lengths, prompting Todd Pletcher to try him on dirt again. He passed with flying colors the second time as well, scoring in a March 3 optional claimer by 4 1/4 lengths over the same track.
Pletcher, who has won this event in 2001 and 2005, has also entered Holiday Promise as an uncoupled entry for WinStar Farm. The bay colt broke his maiden last year at Laurel but in winless in four subsequent starts, including a runner-up finish as the 1-2 favorite at Laurel Feb. 20 in allowance company.
Javier Castellano will ride Heavy Breathing. Junior Alvarado has the mount on Holiday Promise.
"We've been pleasantly surprised by how well he's run on the dirt in his first two starts," said Pletcher of Heavy Breathing, who was bred in Kentucky by Manganaro and is out of the Gone West mare Takesmebreathaway.
As for Holiday Promise, Pletcher said: "We purchased him last year at OBS in the 2-year-olds in training sale, so he performed there on the synthetic and worked well. Then they got back to WinStar and they thought he handled that [all-weather] surface well also, so that's sort of the angle there, and we think that the mile and an eighth should help him out also."
Graham Motion will try to pick up his third Spiral win, as he will saddle Team Valor International and Mark Ford's Went the Day Well (4-1), a winner of a two-turn, maiden special weight race March 3 at Gulfstream in his fourth try. The son of Proud Citizen began his career racing on turf in England before making his two dirt starts at Gulfstream.
"I'm very comfortable with where he's at," said Motion, who has won the Spiral with Adriano and Animal Kingdom. "He's benefited from his races in this country. I've seen improvement in him, and significant improvement after his fourth-place finish [Feb. 4]. In some ways, he's been similar to Animal Kingdom, who was still very green going into the Spiral. I never could have imagined he'd be a Derby winner."
Another promising Gulfstream maiden winner is John Oxley's Stealcase. Trained by Mark Casse, the son of Lawyer Ron enters off a sixth-place finish in the March 3 Gotham in his stakes debut. He has two consecutive bullet works at Palm Meadows and will now race with blinkers on.
"The chart caller's notes say he broke awkwardly in the Gotham," said Casse. "It was more than awkward; he nearly fell down. You can see it on the head-on [replay]. Aqueduct was really speed-biased that day and our plan was to be very close to the lead, but after that break he lost all chance. I'm not saying I think he would have beaten Hansen that day, but I think we'd have given the second-place horse [My Adonis] a run for his money.
"So he had a serious excuse for that race, but he still has to step up. He still has to prove he can run with the big boys. He needs to be first or second in the Spiral. Then the next step would be the Blue Grass."
Trained and co-owned by two-time Spiral winner Maker, Mr. Prankster disappointed as the odds-on favorite in the Battaglia Stakes, finishing a well-beaten fourth. The bay colt had won the two preps leading up to the Battaglia, the Turfway Park Prevue and the WEBN. Stewart Elliott takes over riding duties.
Maker will also send out Tizanespense for George and Tiffany Veloudis. He was never involved when finishing seventh in the Feb. 25 Risen Star at Fair Grounds, but has trained well for Maker since his return. The Tiznow colt won an optional claimer in Louisiana in his season debut Jan. 26.
Olympia Star's Russian Greek ships in from California for Jerry Hollendorfer, who won this race in 1998 and 2000. The colt also enters off a disappointing stakes performance, as he finished fifth in the El Camino Real Derby Feb. 18 on the Golden Gate Fields Tapeta. Prior to that Russian Greek won the California Derby over the surface. He will also race with blinkers.
Corey Nakatani will ride Russian Greek for the first time. They drew the rail.
Others in the field include Handsome Mike, third in the El Camino Real; maiden Coach Royal; Red Jack, who ran in claiming company last out; and All Squared Away.