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Post Time: Accomplished 4-year-olds are feeling their oats

Thoroughbred racing is poised to have a super year, buoyed by the return of several top horses that are skipping the breeding shed for another season of racing.

In the recent past, it was unheard of for a colt that won the Kentucky Derby or Breeders’ Cup Classic to return for a 4-year-old campaign. This season, three top thoroughbreds, including last year’s Horse of the Year, are heading back to the gate. California Chrome, Bayern and the gelding Shared Belief, the 2013 2-year-old champion, are scheduled to face off next weekend in the Grade 1 $500,000 San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita Park.

Chrome toppled the other two sophomores to claim the Eclipse Award for 2014 Horse of the Year two weeks ago at Gulfstream Park. He has been working like a monster at Los Alamitos for trainer Art Sherman and is poised for revenge against Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Bayern in the San Antonio.

The matchup among three of the top four vote-getters for last year’s Horse of the Year will be televised nationally on Fox Sports 1 on that network’s opening broadcast. Fox Sports 1 made its debut last year in the horse racing arena and was geared more to the weekend warrior and gambling aspects than the fashion-based shows of its competitors.

Shared Belief, who finished fourth in the Classic behind the other two stars, will be looking to avenge the horrid start when Bayern surged dead left at the break and wiped out the gelding’s chances at winning the $5 million race.

“We could not script a better beginning to our second season of The Jockey Club racing series than this showdown of champions,” said Michael Mulvihill, senior vice president at Fox Sports.

The full schedule for the series, named The Jockey Club Tour on Fox, has not been announced. But last year’s slate included 24 races over 10 telecasts.

“The ever-increasing national television presence of thoroughbred racing, which now includes several races leading up to the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup as well as the Fox series, certainly helps build awareness of our sport,” said James L. Gagliano, president and chief operating officer of The Jockey Club.

The Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park also will be part of the initial telecast, and is typically the biggest early race on the East Coast for older horses. Last year’s Donn winner Lea, Grade 1 winner Hoppertunity and seven horses from the Todd Pletcher barn were nominated to the $500,000 race.

There is high hope for the return of Palace Malice, sidelined last season due to injury, for a 5-year-old campaign commencing with the Westchester Stakes on Kentucky Derby day. It was reported on Friday by Dogwood Stables that he suffered a bruised foot after throwing a shoe during a training session.

Dogwood has an ambitious campaign for the former Belmont Stakes winner, including defending his Met Mile title, the Whitney, the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Classic at Keeneland. The inclusion of the son of Curlin in the older horse category should make for great drama against the stout 4-year-old incoming class.

With the older horses stealing the early limelight, the Kentucky Derby trail is heating up on both coasts.

The 20-race prep season portion of the Road to the Kentucky Derby will wrap up with the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn on Feb. 16 and will move into the Championship Series. The 16-race Championship Series commences with the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park in three weeks, wherein first-place points increase to 50 from 10 issued during the prep season races.

The two big weekends for Derby preps are March 28 and April 4, with three races on each of those dates providing the top four finishers with 100-40-20-10 points. In the past two seasons since implementing the new Derby points scoring system, the last horse to qualify has had 20 and 10 points, respectively.

One common theme within the biggest contenders for this year’s Derby trail is the past prominence of the sires of the current crop. For instance, 2-year-old champion American Pharoah is sired by 2009 Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile. His trainer Bob Baffert has stated that he is “the best 2-year-old I’ve ever had.”

Another top contender with bloodlines that suggest a solid Derby effort is Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red. The Juvenile champ is sired by Afleet Alex, who finished third in the Derby and followed that with wins in the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes in 2005.

A New York bred, Upstart, roared onto the Derby scene last weekend with a win in the Holy Bull Stakes to boost his point total to 16. He is trained by Rick Violette Jr. Deeper in his bloodlines is Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew and his grandsire was Belmont winner A.P. Indy, so stamina should not be a question.

A more recent sire and Derby winner, Big Brown, puts forth his progeny, Dortmund, as a solid contender on the Derby trail. Winner of the Los Alamitos Futurity in December and also trained by Baffert, he will likely prep on the West Coast.

Currently on top of the points leader board is El Kabeir (21 points), who will likely complete his prep season at Aqueduct on the New York circuit. Trained by John Terranova II and owned by Zayat – whose barn appears to be loaded – El Kabeir has won both of his starts in the Road to the Kentucky Derby impressively.

Between the Derby trail heating up and the upcoming clashes in the older handicap division, this year’s early-season racing slate could be one of the best in recent memory.

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.