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Wilkinson Victorious at the Lecomte Stakes

It's a Triple Crown Affair You Understand...(Wiki Commons)
Without much fanfare, the 2011 Triple Crown chase had its unofficial-official start on Saturday.

The starting gate was located at the Fair Grounds  Racetrack in New Orleans as that historic track presented the Grade-3 Lecomte Stakes, a 1-mile and 40-yard race designed to feed contenders to the 1-1/16 mile, $300,000 Risen Star stakes Feb. 19 and the 1-1/8 mile, $1 million Louisiana Derby, March 26.

The Lecomte winner, WILKINSON, a Neil Howard trained son of 1995 Belmont-Travers stakes winner Lemon Drop Kid, put in a game performance coming back for the victory under jockey Garrett Gomez, after second choice PANTS ON FIRE took a narrow lead in mid stretch. Fact is, it appeared that the race at the 1/16 pole when Wilkinson’s superior stamina-breeding and expert conditioning helped him to dig in along the rail for a desperate last bid in the shadow of the wire.

While Wilkinson’s victory is only one small step on the long winding road to Louisville on the first Saturday in May, trainer Howard knows the road map. A solid horseman for more than 30 years, Howard won the 1990 Preakness with Summer Squall two weeks after that talented 3-year-old finished second to Unbridled in the Kentucky Derby.

(Wilkinson) has got a lot of talent and appears to have turned the corner in his development,” Howard said. “Now, we have a lot of options.”

Howard indicated that Wilkinson may not go with Risen Star, as he has another promising 3-year-old already pointing for that $300,000 race. “I just might take Wilkinson directly to the Louisiana Derby,” he said. Howard also might ship the Lecomte winner to Arkansas for the Rebel stakes at Oaklawn in March followed by the Arkansas Derby in April.

The road to Churchill Downs actually can begin almost anywhere and in the modern era, a well prepared Derby horse rarely is kept close to home for all the prep races.

For instance, next weekend at Gulfstream Park, BOYS AT TOSCANOVA, a Grade-1 winning 2-year-old who was second to 2010 Juvenile Champ UNCLE MO in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, is scheduled to start in the $400,000 G-2 Holy Bull Stakes at the one-mile on Sunday, Jan 30, followed by a possible start in the $1 million, 1-1/8 mile Florida Derby at the same track on Apr. 3.

Trainer Rick Dutrow has also said he may go from the Holy Bull to the $750,000 G-1 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on Apr. 9, where Uncle Mo is expected to go to the $750,000 G-1 Blue Grass stakes on April 16 at Keeneland.

Nothing is cast in stone,” Dutrow said. “All I really know is I have a very good horse who should be pointed to the Kentucky Derby and it’s my job to get him there.”

As previously hinted, trainer Todd Pletcher is planning to go to the Derby via Wood, but first he is likely to run in the $225,000 Grade-3 Sam F. Davis stakes at Tampa Bay Downs next Saturday.

If Pletcher keeps to that publicly announced schedule, Uncle Mo will have only two prep races for the 1-1/4 mile, $2 million Kentucky Derby on May 7, a light regimen but one that has become exceedingly popular in recent seasons.

In California, there are many available options, all of which are intended to produce contenders for the $1 million Santa Anita Derby on April 9. The first of these important California based Derby preps will be at Santa Anita Park on Feb. 12---the $250,000, Grade-2 Robert B. Lewis stakes.

Then of course, there is the $350,000 Grade-2 Tampa Bay Derby on Feb. 26; the $500,000 Spiral Stakes (now sponsored by Vinery stud) at Turfway Park on Mar. 26; the $800,000 Grade-3 Sunland Derby on Mar. 27; the $500,000 G-3 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne on Apr. 9 and the aforementioned Blue Grass stakes at Keeneland.

If you own a 3-year-old Thoroughbred and want to find out if it really is a legit Derby prospect, you will have many choices during the next 3-1/2 months. Likewise, if you are a horseplayer who wants to make a Derby Future Book Wager, Bodog is going to have that betting option posted for you very soon. My website is also offering a fun Fantasy Contest to pick the potential starters in this year’s Derby, so make sure to check it out.

Right now it is freezing in many parts of America, but don’t be surprised if you suddenly catch Derby Fever. For one thing it means that spring is not that far away.

The Road to the Triple Crown Begins! Get all your online  horse betting at Bodog today.