The road to the $2 million Kentucky Derby hits some major speed bumps today.
Horses that run well in three nationally televised 1 1/8 -mile prep races (4 p.m., Ch. 2) will be well on their way to the May 7 Run for the Roses. Those that find the competition too tough in the Wood Memorial, Illinois Derby and Santa Anita Derby can take a stall on the sidelines.
The afternoon's most intriguing subplot comes at Santa Anita (post time 5:42 p.m.) where Sweet Catomine, last season's champion 2-year-old filly, takes on 10 male challengers for a $750,000 purse.
In 68 years, only three fillies have won the Santa Anita Derby. The last came in 1988 when Winning Colors did it en route to becoming the third female to win the Kentucky Derby in 130 years.
Sweet Catomine, a strapping bay with a strong stretch kick, showed she was something special when she won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies by 3 3/4 lengths last October at Lone Star Park. Her time was two-fifths of a second faster than Wilko (who also is in today's race) took to win the Juvenile at the same 1 1/1 6-mile distance against males the same afternoon.
Since then, Sweet Catomine has gone 2 for 2, including an easy victory in the Santa Anita Oaks.
"I'm nervous and I'm apprehensive. I'm much more nervous about this race than the others," Marty Wygod, Sweet Catomine's owner and breeder, told a conference call last week.
With a 5-for-6 record and a bankroll of $1,044,600, Sweet Catomine -- the richest 3-year-old in North America -- is understandably the 7-5 morning line favorite.
However, not everyone is convinced.
"I'm a little bit surprised that there's as many horses in there that -- well, at least on paper a lot of them don't look as if they would normally be in this kind of a race," Wygod said. "But I think it tells you also that they don't have that much respect for Sweet Catomine, otherwise I don't think there'd be as many in there."
The Wood (4:45 p.m.) has produced three of the last five Kentucky Derby winners. So it would be no surprise if some of the eight entrants in Aqueduct's richest race ($750,000) go on to greater things.
Two shippers from warmer climes -- Bellamy Road (2-1) and Going Wild (5-2) -- loom as the Wood favorites. Each is from a powerful barn accustomed to Kentucky Derby success. Both are currently stabled at Churchill Downs, where they tuned up with sharp workouts last Sunday.
Bellamy Road is one of trainer Nick Zito's herd of five Derby candidates, although this is just his second start for Zito (a two-time Derby winner) after owner George Steinbrenner fired Michael Dickinson after the colt's only loss last fall.
Last time out, Bellamy Road won a one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park in an impressive time of 1:35 4/5 .
"There's no question he was very impressive in his last start. He looked tremendous," said Zito of the least accomplished of his daunting quintet, which also contains Sun King, High Fly, Noble Causeway and Andromeda's Hero.
Going Wild is one of two Derby candidates owned by Californians Bob and Beverly Lewis and trained by four-time Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas. Their first stringer, Consolidator, is expected to run in next week's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
"We have the Derby fever, Beverly and I, as bad as we have ever had it," said Lewis, who has owned Derby winners Silver Charm (1997) and Charismatic (1999).
"At this point I'm not trying to separate them. I'm just trying to get them both there," Lewis said.
The $500,000 Illinois Derby (5:17 p.m.) -- which produced Kentucky Derby winner War Emblem in 2002 -- looks like the lightweight of today's race trio.
The favorites in the nine-horse field are Kansas City Boy (7-2) and Magna Graduate (4-1), who ran out-of-the-money in their previous starts for trainers Ken McPeek and Patrick Byrne, respectively.
Magna Graduate, winner 3 of 8 races and $177,582, is the only colt in the race with a stakes victory.
STAKING A CLAIM
$750,000 Wood Memorial (4:45 p.m.)
1 Scrappy T Rafael Bejarano 15-1
2 Byanosejoe Jose Santos 12-1
3 Bellamy Road Javier Castellano 2-1
4 Survivalist Richard Migliore 5-1
5 Going Wild Victor Espinoza 5-2
6 Pavo Jerry Bailey 8-1
7 Galloping Grocer Mike Luzzi 6-1
8 Naughty New Yorker Jean-Luc Samyn 10-1
$500,000 Illinois Derby (5:17 p.m.)
1 Greeley's Galaxy Kent Desormeaux 9-2
2 Monarch Lane Chris DeCarlo 6-1
3 Magna Graduate Eusebio Razo Jr. 4-1
4 Rikman Herb Castillo Jr. 5-1
5 Unbridled Energy Shaun Bridgmohan 5-1
6 Medigating Larry Melancon 12-1
7 Win Me Over Larry Sterling Jr. 20-1
8 Daddy Joe Norberto Arroyo Jr. 10-1
9 Kansas City Boy Chris Emigh 7-2
$750,000 Santa Anita Derby (5:42 p.m.)
1 Allright Tammi Piermarini 30-1
1A Customer Rene Douglas 30-1
2 Giacomo Mike Smith 5-1
3 Sweet Catomine Cory Nakatani 7-5
4 Don't Get Mad Tyler Baze 7-2
5 Go Coyote Joe Martin Pedroza 30-1
6 General John B Jon Court 20-1
7 A.P. Arrow Jose Valdivia Jr. 20-1
8 Wannawinemall Alex Solis 15-1
9 Buzzards Bay Mark Guidry 12-1
10 Wilko Frankie Dettori 9-2