Forget the NCAAs, it’s Derby prep season for horseplayers

Updated March 9, 2017 - 6:26 pm

There are a lot of parallels between the Road to the Kentucky Derby and the Road to the Final Four in college basketball. It is not good enough just to be in the hunt. You have to be peaking at the right time and have all the bounces go your way.

Next week our city will be swamped with basketball fans for the NCAA Tournament. I know people who try to bet every game. Good luck with that.

Horseplayers have each weekend to look forward to Derby preps. On Saturday, we have the San Felipe at Santa Anita and the Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs.

Four of the past five Kentucky Derby winners have come out of Southern California. Thus, the San Felipe will lay out the blueprint for the Santa Anita Derby and then on to the Kentucky Derby.

Mastery might have the right stuff to give trainer Bob Baffert his third straight 3-year-old champion. Unbeaten in three starts, this will be his toughest test so far. If you are going to beat this colt, it better be now.

Iliad and Gormley will be his main threats.

Iliad showed more polish in winning the 7 furlong San Vicente last time out. His start will be his first around two turns.

Gormley edged another talented Baffert colt, American Anthem, in the Sham. Gormley has won twice around two turns, so he has more experience. His only loss was a poor outing in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

The Tampa Bay Derby will be missing McCracken, who suffered a minor ankle strain, according to his trainer, Ian Wilkes. That helped expand the field to 10 starters.

It looks as if the group is top heavy with speed. Within that race shape, I prefer closers such as Tapwrit and No Dozing.

Tapwrit closed well for second in the Sam F. Davis for trainer Todd Pletcher. If he improves even a step, he’ll be double tough Saturday.

No Dozing failed miserably in the Sam F. Davis with a sixth-place finish. He has worked brilliantly since and has plenty of room to improve.

SANTA ANITA HANDICAP

The Santa Anita Handicap would be the premier race of the weekend in years past. But with the advent of the Pegasus World Cup before it and the Dubai World Cup after it, the Big Cap is in a difficult sandwich.

With horse of the planet Arrogate heading for Dubai, nine good but not great older horses are in the Big Cap.

My pick is Shaman Ghost, who last out ran second to Arrogate in the Pegasus. He could have a big year as long as he avoids Arrogate.

At age 6, Midnight Storm has found a new home on dirt. He does appear to be lone early speed, the best bet in horse racing.

ULTIMATE BETTING CHALLENGE

Santa Anita Park and Gulfstream Park are co-hosting this bicoastal tournament Saturday. It is a live money format, $4,500 entry fee, with all fees paid back in prize money. I love that there is zero takeout.

SAM’S TOWN QUALIFIER

Sam’s Town will host a qualifier March 17 for the Horseplayer World Series. The entry fee is $200. One HPWS seat will be awarded for each 25 entries.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. You can buy his Santa Anita Park picks at racedaylasvegas.com. You can email him at rich_eng@hotmail.com. Follow @richeng4propick on Twitter.

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