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Gene Kershner’s Post Time: Major stakes season ready to get underway

Is it really less than 100 days to the Kentucky Derby?

For those of us counting at home it is exactly 98 days to the First Saturday in May and time to start paying attention to the Derby prep races leading up to the big dance.

It will take an extraordinary year to top what we witnessed in 2015 with the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years in American Pharoah.

The slate is wiped clean and we’ll see if the decade can produce multiple Triple Crown winners. The 1940s saw three winners, as did the 1970s. Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978) spoiled racing fans during the ’70s before the drought finally eclipsed last May at Belmont Park.

In addition to the Derby trail, older horses with “superstar” status that will grace the track in 2016 include dual Classic winner California Chrome and last year’s older female champion, Beholder. Chrome, the 5-year-old chestnut-colored champion, already has a win under his belt earlier this month.

The 2014 Derby-Preakness winner is in Dubai pointing toward the world’s richest race, the $10 million Dubai World Cup in March, a race he finished second in last year. He’ll likely face some familiar American foes in Frosted and Itsaknockout at Meydan Racecourse.

Beholder will look to capture a fourth Eclipse award in 2016 after capturing 2-year-old filly (2012), 3-year-old filly (2014) and older dirt female (2015) honors. She missed a showdown with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in last October’s Breeders’ Cup Classic after spiking a fever.

Another interesting storyline is the path of 3-year-old filly Songbird. She dominated her 2-year-old campaign, winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and capturing the 2-year-old female Eclipse award.

Will she try the boys on the Derby trail or show up at the Preakness a la Rachel Alexandra? Since the points system started, no filly has run in the Derby.

The Derby trail is currently in the Prep Season and five races remain providing 10-4-2-1 points to the top four finishers. The Championship Season races commence on Feb. 20 with the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, with eight races providing 50-20-10-5 points.

Starting on March 20, seven races will provide the top four finishers with 100-50-20-10 points and will almost assure the top two finishers a spot in the gate in Louisville. The top 20 point-earners qualify for the Derby.

The top two horses in the Wynn Las Vegas Derby Future Book are Mohaymen (14-1) and Mor Spirit (14-1). Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Nyquist is the third choice at 15-1. The over/under for the minimum points to qualify was set by the Wynn at 20ø points.

Two Prep season races are on tap this weekend. The $250,000 Grade 3 Withers Stakes will be run at Aqueduct in New York and the $350,000 Grade 2 Holy Bull is scheduled at Gulfstream Park in south Florida.

The last classic winner produced out of the Withers was Bernardini (2006), who won the Preakness that same year.

Trainer Todd Pletcher will be seeking his fourth Withers and second in a row with Donegal Moon (15-1), a colt who threw his rider in his last outing in the Grade 3 Jerome.

Chad Brown sends out the morning-line favorite Flexibility (7-5), the Jerome winner by 4 lengths over Vorticity (8-1), a Distorted Humor colt. Irad Ortiz, Jr. will be aboard Flexibility and his brother Jose will ride Vorticity.

One colt training well is Sunny Ridge (5-2), a son of Holy Bull. Sunny Ridge ran a solid second in the Grade 2 Delta Jackpot behind Exaggerator. The 8½-furlong race drew a solid group and looks to be a wide open affair.

Down in Florida, six colts will line up in the Holy Bull. The morning-line favorite is the best of the best to date on the East Coast, Mohaymen (6-5). He stands atop the Derby future book. Look for a big effort from the Tapit colt to spring him forward for Kiaran McLaughlin, who trained his dam, Justwhistledixie.

This will be the 2016 debut for Mohaymen after winning the Grade 3 Remsen at Aqueduct on the Cigar Mile undercard last November. He has three straight wins in his fledgling career. The grey colt was a $2.2 million purchase in the 2014 Keeneland September sale by Shadwell Stable.

His main challenge will come from Greenpointcrusader (8-5), winner of the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes last year and seventh-place finisher in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The son of Bernardini was caught eight-wide in the Juvenile, but rallied late to finish within 4 lengths of Nyquist. Hall of Famer John Velazquez will ride for the first time aboard the $575,000 purchase out of the same sale as Mohaymen.

Mark Casse, who is quietly having a nice meet at Gulfstream, trains another Conquest Stables colt, Conquest Big E (7-2). He finished behind Greenpointcrusader in the Juvenile and came back to win an allowance at Churchill Downs. Mike Smith ships in to ride the $700,000 colt for the first time.

As the Derby trail heats up Saturday afternoon, it looks as if the Withers is wide open and the Holy Bull appears to be Mohaymen’s race to lose. A full race review of the Holy Bull can be found at the Sports, Ink blog.

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