Triple Crown trail to heat up this weekend

Cooke Creek
Cooke Creek held off Affable Monarch to win the Rocky Run Stakes. Photo by

The road to the Triple Crown begins to heat up this weekend, as three races offering the winner points towards entry in the Kentucky Derby are on the docket.

The Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park and Grade 3 Withers at Aqueduct are scheduled for Saturday. Sunday brings the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita Park. All three races offer Derby points to the first four finishers on a 10-4-2-1 basis.

The Mark Casse-trained Pappacap and Steve Asmussen trainee Epicenter currently are tied atop the points leaderboard. Each has 14, and another 10 horses are right behind them with 10.

The Withers, a nine-furlong test with a purse of $250,000, has drawn a bulky field of 11. The Chad Brown-trained Early Voting, a $200,000 Gun Runner colt who won nicely at first asking, is the lukewarm 3-1 favorite in the second start of his career. Jose Ortiz has the mount.

A couple of horses that have connections to the Mid-Atlantic are entered, as well. Smarten Up (10-1) broke his maiden at third asking over his home strip, at Parx Racing, winning off by nine lengths for trainer Alfredo Velazquez. He then ran second in the $150,000 Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct. Regular pilot Anthony Salgado has the mount.

Jerry O’Dwyer will send out Cooke Creek (6-1), winner of Delaware’s Rocky Run Stakes in his second career start. He has been second and third in two subsequent stakes tries. Manny Franco will ride.

[See the Derby point standings and latest news here.]

The Kelly Breen trainee Courvoisier (9-2) finished second three straight times to start his career, all as the favorite, at Monmouth and Delaware. Since then he’s won two straight, including a win in the Jerome. Ruben Silvera will ride.

The Parx-based Noneedtoworry (30-1) has won two straight for trainer Herold Whylie and will have Silvestre Gonzalez in the irons. And the Maryland-bred Mr Jefferson (20-1) will head postward for trainer Mike Trombetta.after being well-beaten in two recent stakes tries.

[See the replays for all North American Derby points races here.]

The 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull has drawn nine runners. Todd Pletcher’s Mo Donegal is the 5-2 morning line favorite off back-to-back victories. Most recently, the Uncle Mo colt won the G2 Remsen at Aqueduct in December. Irad Ortiz has the mount.

One horse hoping to post the big upset here is Eloquist (20-1). The Butch Reid trainee broke his maiden at his home track of Parx Racing back in October but has been well beaten in two subsequent tries. Jockey Frankie Pennington makes the trip to South Florida for the ride.

Finally, the $200,000 1 1/16-mile Bob Lewis has attracted just five entrants. Two of them, including 6-5 morning line favorite Messier, are trained by Bob Baffert and are thus ineligible to receive Derby points.