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Horses jockeying for Derby position in prep races

The field for the Kentucky Derby will start to firm up this weekend with just 10 weeks until May 3.

Two key races for 3-year-olds — the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds and the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park — will offer 50 points to the winner and 20 for second. Off last year’s Derby point standings, that will be enough for the top two finishers to make the field.

Both the Fountain of Youth and the Risen Star are at a 1 1/16th-mile distance. Both track configurations are similar with a short run to the first turn. This favors the inside horses over the outside horses that must run farther.

Commissioner from trainer Todd Pletcher drew Post 1 in the Fountain of Youth. He has progressed nicely in three career starts and should save every inch of ground.

The Gulfstream main track often favors speed horses, which means keep an eye on Wildcat Red, who won the seven-furlong Hutcheson last time out. He is by D’wildcat, which screams sprinter pedigree, but he may be able to stagger home first on the lead.

The horse I like with the most potential is Top Billing from trainer Shug McGaughey. He drew Post 12, which may hurt him. The key will be if jockey Joel Rosario can find a spot to save ground and finish well in the stretch.

The Risen Star also could favor a speed horse in Rise Up (4-1), who breaks from Post 2. He won the Delta Jackpot wire-to-wire last time and will try to do the same at the Fair Grounds.

Vicar’s in Trouble (5-2) could be just that from Post 14. Jockey Rosie Napravnik may have to use some horse early to get position. That spurt of energy used may show up in the final furlong of the Risen Star.

A barometer of West Coast power will come from two Southern California shippers — Hoppertunity (8-1) and Bond Holder (6-1).

I think Hoppertunity from trainer Bob Baffert has the bigger upside of those two. The son of Any Given Saturday broke his maiden impressively last out, so he’s taking a big step up in class.

■ DEL MAR DIRT — Track president Joe Harper announced this week that Del Mar will switch back to a dirt main track in time for the 2015 season. This follows a widening of the turf course in time for the 2014 summer meet.

The reason behind the two changes is Del Mar wants to host a Breeders’ Cup. Without a wider turf course and a dirt main track, that was not going to happen.

The change at Del Mar ends a costly experiment of having synthetic surfaces at three Southern California tracks.

The best shot for this experiment to succeed would have been if Del Mar, Hollywood Park and Santa Anita Park teamed to buy from one manufacturer. The combined cost would have been much lower, and maintenance problems could have been answered more easily.

Instead, three companies were used, hindering a shared learning curve among the three tracks.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @richeng4propick.

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