The Saturday Special – March 23

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March Madness and the Road to the Final Four went into high gear this week and the path to another major destination – Churchill Downs and the first Saturday in May – also takes another big twist with this weekend’s Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds.

A loaded card is on tap in New Orleans with the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby and Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks topping the day that includes two other graded stakes and four other stakes worth between $60,000 and $75,000.

Six weeks remain until the Kentucky Derby May 4 at Churchill and the Louisiana Derby is the first of six races that offer 100 points to the winner toward a spot in the starting gate. The others come soon with the UAE Derby and Florida Derby next week, Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby and Blue Grass Stakes April 6 and the Arkansas Derby April 13.

Another busy Saturday is on tap elsewhere around the country, with stakes action at Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Oaklawn and Sam Houston leading the way.

Here’s your primer for Saturday, March 23. Take care and good luck.

Newbury. Race 1. 10:05 a.m. There is life after Cheltenham. Handicap chasers kick off a strong card at one of England’s best tracks. Alan King goes double fisted with veterans Ziga Boy and Salmanazar in the opener.

Newbury. Race 2. 10:40. If trainers swerved Cheltenham looking for an easy spot for juveniles, well, this is probably easier but it’s not easy. Fourteen strong.

Thurles. Race 2. 10:55. Is this the first Cheltenham runner to run back? Scarpeta finished 12 lengths behind William Henry and Wicklow Brave in the Coral Cup 10 days ago.

Newbury. Race 3. 11:15. Etamine Du Cochet looks strong in this Grade 2 mares hurdle.

Newbury. Race 4. 11:50. Five veteran chasers clash in the Doom Bar Handicap Chase. We said it three weeks ago, if Valdez wins, beers are on us.

Bangor-on-Dee. Race 5. Noon. Champion Hurdle winning trainer Gavin Cromwell ships Biddy The Boss from Ireland for this mares handicap chase.

Fair Grounds. Race 1. Noon. State-bred maiden special weight at 6 furlongs opens the Louisiana Derby Day card. 

Thurles. Race 4. 12:05 p.m. Life after Cheltenham II. Jetz skipped Cheltenham and picks up Gold Cup winning jockey Paul Townend for this $57,000 novice chase.

Fair Grounds. Race 2. 12:28. The first of eight stakes is the $75,000 Crescent City Oaks for state-bred 3-year-olds. Midnight Fantasy looks to turn tables on Goodprofit, who beat her at Delta Downs in Premier Night Starlet Feb. 9.

Fair Grounds. Race 3. 12:56. First grass race carded is the $75,000 New Orleans Ladies featuring Beau Recall, Coachwhip, Sensitive and European import Flower Party.

Newbury. Race 6. 1:00. Goffs UK puts up a big purse of $64,000 for its graduates. Get In The Queue hasn’t been in any queues so far in his life, he’s 2-for-2 by a combined 25 lengths. The 5-year-old should provide Noel Fehily with the perfect sendoff to a stellar career. Congratulations, you have been a credit to the game.

Bangor-on-Dee. Race 7. 1:10. Ah, the hunter chase, when the horses have more experience than the jockeys. The five runners have combined for 184 starts. We haven’t done the math on the riders, but it’s probably fewer than that.

Newbury. Race 7. 1:35. Master Work, third at Leicester after switching from hurdles, leads a competitive finale.

Fair Grounds. Race 6. 2:24. Shang lost career debut back in mid-November and hasn’t lost since, rattling off three straight heading into $75,000 Crescent City Derby. Sharp Witted will give him all he can handle.

Laurel Park. Race 4. 2:42. Aikenetta shipped from New York March 2 to finish second in 1-mile allowance and now she’s back for a two-turn allowance.

Oaklawn. Race 3. 3:08. Irish Mischief relished stretching out to two turns last time and daughter of Into Mischief goes a little further in 1 1/16-mile optional claimer here for Brad Cox.

Gulfstream Park. Race 6. 3:10. Smoken Deb, 6-5 on the morning line, brings maiden-claiming victory at Tampa Bay Downs two back and a runner-up in similar spot last time into $75,000 Any Limit Stakes.

Tampa Bay Downs. Race 6. 3:13. First division of 11-furlong starter handicap on the grass.

Fair Grounds. Race 8. 3:24. Two-turn maiden for 3-year-olds draws high-dollar prospects Tapit Wise, Copper King, Fairway Magic, Awesome Wok N Roll and Tony Small.

Kempton. Race 5. 3:30. Solid four-horse field lines up for this 7-furlong event. Cardsharp owns six wins, Giogiobbo accounts for 10 wins in his career, American-bred son of Scat Daddy Glendevon has only won once but finished 2 3/4 lengths behind Without Parole last May and Crossing The Line, a five-time winner, takes on the boys.

Laurel. Race 6. 3:42. Fast Master, a son of Flashback who cost $275,000 at last year’s Fasig-Tipton Midlantic May 2-year-old sale, looks to graduate in second start for Graham Motion and Trevor McCarthy.

Fair Grounds. Race 9. 3:59. Monte Man back to defend title in $60,000 Costa Rising for Louisiana-breds going 5 1/2 furlongs on the grass. Full field of 14 with a couple on the AE list.

Tampa. Race 8. 4:13. Tough to sort field of 10 for 1-mile turf allowance. Take your pick.

Fair Grounds. Race 10. 4:34. Noble Indy resurfaces in Grade 2 New Orleans a year removed from winning the Louisiana Derby. He’s a longshot in this spot against Silver Dust, Lone Sailor, Copper Bullet, Mr. Buff and Core Beliefs.

Tampa. Race 9. 4:44. Nigel’s Destiny, Wagon Boss and Whiskey Train met in 9-furlong starter handicap. They go an extra quarter-mile in second division of turf starter handicap.

Oaklawn. Race 7. 5:09. Hoonani Road topped Weast Hill, Racer and others last time in Arkansas-bred allowance and now takes step up in $100,000 Nodouble Breeders’ Stakes. J. E.’s Handmedown won last year’s Nodouble but needs to improve off eighth to the favorite last time.

Fair Grounds. Race 11. 5:10. Synchrony puts 4-for-4 mark on the Fair Grounds turf on the line in Grade 2 Mervin Muniz Memorial Handicap. Solid field takes him on, including Pegasus World Cup Turf winner Bricks And Mortar, Divisdero and Inspector Lynley.

Aqueduct. Race 8. 5:37. Stonesintheroad could make it four straight against seven other 3-year-old fillies go 6 furlongs in $100,000 Cicada. Miss Imperial will have something to say in 6-furlong stakes for Jason Servis, as will Guacamole for Todd Pletcher.

Fair Grounds. Race 12. 5:44. Serengeti Empress whipped field that included Liora and Eres Tu last time in Grade 2 Rachel Alexandra and deserves favorite role in Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks.

Oaklawn. Race 9. 6:09. Connections of Gray Attempt, winner of Smart Jones in January and 11th after being caught in speed duel in Grade 3 Southwest, regroup in $100,000 Gazebo at 6 furlongs. Nitrous, third in the Grade 1 Hopeful last year, and Six Shooter, fourth in the Smarty Jones and Southwest, are also in the field.

Gulfstream. Race 12. 6:10. A week out from the Florida Derby, the Grade 3 Hutcheson for 3-year-olds headlines the day in Hallandale Beach. Federal Case found the company a bit tough last time in Grade 2 Holy Bull and cuts back to one turn for 6-furlong stakes against Topper T, In The Loop and Lutsky.

Fair Grounds. Race 13. 6:13. The main event of the season in New Orleans is the $1 million Louisiana Derby and all eyes will be on War Of Will as he looks for sweep of major Kentucky Derby preps. Son of War Front found no trouble in Lecomte and Risen Star and looks tough in strong renewal that also draws Lemniscate, Country House and Spinoff from Florida and Sueno from California. Country House finished second to the favorite in Risen Star and could start a big stretch for Bill Mott.

Turfway Park. Race 5. 8:12. Need a break from the NCAA tournament? Check out Infinite in 6-furlong maiden for Wesley Ward.

Sam Houston Race Park. Race 2. 8:48. Texas-bred fillies and mares go 6 furlongs in $50,000 Yellow Rose. Shes Our Fastest is 6-5 on the line despite five straight losses, although the last time she faced this kind she won at Lone Star Park.

Turfway. Race 7. 9:12. Two Shakes broke her maiden first time out at Saratoga then finished seventh in Kentucky Downs Juvenile Fillies in September before going to the sidelines. Daughter of Exchange Rate is back for 6 1/2-furlong allowance.

Sam Houston. Race 3. 9:18. Texas Belle rides two-race win streak into $50,000 San Jacinto Turf while Corluna and Witt’s Town try for the upset.

Sam Houston. Race 4. 9:48. The stakes keep coming; here’s the $50,000 Spirit of Texas. Supermason could be the biggest chalk of the day, making first start for Joe Sharp in 6-furlong Texas-bred event.

Sam Houston. Race 5. 10:18. Surely you’re still going strong. Here’s the $50,000 Bara Lass for state-bred fillies and mares. Golden Lullabye in mild upset of Ima Discreet Lady.

Sam Houston. Race 6. 10:48. Good to still see the legendary Groovy honored in his home state. Mr. Money Bags walloped a few of these last time and looks to add $50,000 stakes to his three other victories.

Sam Houston. Race 7. 11:18. Back to the grass for $50,000 Richard King Turf to close the night for our team. No pick. Whew, we’re wore out.