With reigning juvenile champion Hansen making his season debut in the Grade III Holy Bull Stakes last Sunday, the sometimes casual attention paid to the infant stages of the Kentucky Derby trail was ratcheted up a notch.
This weekend's slate of prep races shouldn't feature much drop-off from that high-profile lead-in because there is no shortage of intriguing entrants on either coast.
On Saturday, the Grade II $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes will showcase some of the leading California-based runners — including two of the more promising prospects from trainer Bob Baffert's arsenal — while the Grade III Withers and Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes take center stage at Aqueduct and Tampa Bay Downs, respectively.
The 11⁄16-mile Robert B. Lewis will mark the 2012 debut for Baffert-trainee Liaison, winner of the Grade I CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park on Dec. 17. The bay son of Indian Charlie stamped himself as one to watch coming out of the West Coast, winning three of his four starts last season and breaking his maiden by 23/4 lengths going 7 furlongs over the Santa Anita track.
Owned by Arnold Zetcher, Liaison is 2-for-2 at the 11⁄16-mile distance, both times defeating fellow Robert B. Lewis entrant Rousing Sermon. In addition to holding off that rival by a neck in the CashCall, Liaison also bested him by a half-length in the Real Quiet Stakes in November.
Liaison, who will break from post No. 2 in the eight-horse field as the 123-pound high weight, will be joined in the starting gate Saturday by stablemate Sky Kingdom, an impressive allowance winner at Santa Anita on Jan. 12.
"They're doing well, and we want to win the race," Baffert said of his two entrants. "They're going into the race very well prepared, so we expect them to run pretty well. They've had a few starts now where they've got enough foundation, and they've done well. You just want them to stay healthy."
The 11⁄16-mile Withers at Aqueduct features a field of seven including morning-line, even-money favorite Alpha.
Though Alpha finished 11th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile behind Hansen, the son of Bernardini started his 2012 campaign with a 2½ -length victory in January's Count Fleet over Stephanoatsee. Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, Alpha finished second to Union Rags in the Grade I Champagne last year and is regarded by many as one of the best Derby prospects owner Godolphin has had in recent years.
"We are taking the Withers as an important step, and maybe, maybe, afterward we'll talk about what we're going to do," McLaughlin said.
Trainer Dale Romans, who saddled Shackleford to victory in the 2011 Preakness, will be represented in the Withers by the lightly raced King Kid, who was most recently third in the Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year's Day.
"He's a horse we've always thought a lot of, and we'd like him to run big Saturday and see if he belongs," Romans said of King Kid.
The Sam F. Davis is also contested at 11⁄16 miles and will mark the dirt debut for Team Valor's State of Play.
State of Play showed he could handle added distance when he won the 11⁄16-mile, Grade II With Anticipation on the grass at Saratoga last September, but the son of War Front ended his 2-year-old season by finishing 12th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf.
Among State of Play's main foes in the Sam F. Davis will be the Todd Pletcher-trained Ecabroni, who broke his maiden in front-running fashion going 7 furlongs at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 14.