The Month Ahead: February 2012
By Kevin Martin, Hello Race Fans Contributing Editor

As February rolls around, all five of the major winter racing circuits are up and running. February brings graded stakes to all of racing’s divisions except for the 2-year-olds, which won’t come until later in the year. From Florida to California, graded stakes earnings are up for grabs, including the first graded stakes of the year in New York, a doubleheader of Grade 1 races at Gulfstream Park, and nine graded stakes at Santa Anita Park.

While much of the attention will be on the 3-year-olds, the most intriguing day of racing this month will feature older horses at Gulfstream Park with the Donn Handicap (Ten Things) and Gulfstream Park Handicaps on February 11. The two Grade 1 races could see all three winners of last year’s Triple Crown races in competition — Animal Kingdom (Lifetime PP), Shackleford (Lifetime PP), and Ruler on Ice.

This month Santa Anita Park will host the final leg of the Strub Series for 4-year-olds and have at least one graded stake every weekend. Santa Anita Park will card the Grade 2 1 â…› miles San Antonio Stakes, a traditional prep for the Santa Anita Handicap (Ten Things), which is one of racing’s most historic and coveted prizes for older horses in the country.

While there is great racing in all divisions this month, much of the focus will be on the 3-year-olds as the road to the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks continues with relevant stakes action at all the major circuits. The Fountain of Youth Stakes (Ten Things) in Florida is expected to see early Kentucky Derby favorite Union Rags (Lifetime PP) make his first start of the year.

Race fans will also be watching the 3-year-old allowance and maiden special weight races around the country for a potential 3-year-old star. In recent years, dual classic winner Big Brown won a Gulfstream allowance race in March and Preakness winner Curlin broke his maiden at Oaklawn Park in February. The potential Kentucky Derby winner could be off the radar of racing experts and handicappers at this time of year, so it’s always fun to see when and where the next buzz horse will emerge

Here is a week by week preview of what’s to come in the month of February:

Week 1

February 4
Aqueduct: New York has its first graded stakes races of 2012 with the Grade 3 Withers and Grade 3 Toboggan. The Withers for 3-year-olds has been on New York’s racing schedule since the 1870s and has traditionally been run in the spring. This year, after a one-year hiatus, it has been moved and will serve as a prep race for Kentucky Derby hopefuls.

February 4
Santa Anita Park: The final leg of the unique Strub Series for 4-year-olds at Santa Anita Park will culminate in the Grade 2 Strub Stakes. Tapizar — the promising colt injured on last year’s Derby Trail — scored an impressive win in last month’s San Fernando Stakes and is among the likely runners in the Strub.

February 5
Santa Anita Park: The Grade 2 San Antonio stakes at Santa Anita Park has a short list of nominees but does include last year’s Santa Anita Handicap winner and second place finisher in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (Ten Things), Game On Dude (Lifetime PP). Horses running well in the San Antonio are likely to return in next month’s Santa Anita Handicap (Ten Things), the crown jewel of American handicap racing.

Week 2

Febuary 11
Gulfstream Park: The second Saturday in February could see the best race of the early year so far in the Donn Handicap (Ten Things) at Gulfstream Park. Last year’s Preakness winner Shackleford (Lifetime PP), Belmont Stakes winners Ruler On Ice, and Jockey Club Gold Cup (Ten Things) winner Flat Out are all possible for the half million dollar Grade 1 Donn Handicap (Ten Things). To add further excitement to the day, Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom (Lifetime PP) could start in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Handicap on the turf. It would be Animal Kingdom’s first race since last June’s Belmont Stakes.

Update, Febuary 8
Animal Kingdom’s trainer Graham Motion announced that he would take his Derby winner to Tampa Bay Downs for his first race on Feb 25.

Update February 10
The first of three Kentucky Derby future pools will kick off on Friday Feb 10. Most of the money will likely land on “the field” at this point of the season but also look for Union Rags (Lifetime PP) and Algorithms to vie for favoritism among the betting choices.

Week 3

February 18
Santa Anita Park: The Santa Maria Stakes, one of the nation’s oldest stakes races for fillies and mares, will be run at Santa Anita Park. The race has been on the Santa Anita race schedule since the track’s opening in 1934.

February 20 (Monday)
Oaklawn Park: Oaklawn Park will card its first graded stakes for 3-year-olds in the 1-mile Southwest Stakes. Near-Triple Crown winner Smarty Jones won the Southwest Stakes in 2004 on his way to a earning a $5 million bonus for sweeping the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby (Ten Things) at Oaklawn, and the Kentucky Derby.

Week 4

February 25
Fair Grounds: Louisiana Derby Preview Day at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans will feature six stakes races, four of them graded, including the Rachel Alexandra Stakes (Ten Things) for 3-year-old fillies and the Risen Star for the colts. The races will serve as preps for the Fair Grounds Oaks and Louisiana Derby, respectively, to be run on April 1.

February 26
Gulfstream Park: Union Rags (Lifetime PP), a colt high on many early season Kentucky Derby top ten lists, is scheduled to make his 3-year-old debut in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes (Ten Things) at Gulfstream Park. Union Rags’s trainer, Michael Matz, is the last trainer to win the Fountain of Youth and Kentucky Derby. He won those two in 2006 with Barbaro and hopes to repeat the double with the well-regarded Union Rags. Also on the Gulfstream Park card for the 26th is the Grade 2 Mac Diarmida Stakes, run at 1 â…œ miles on the turf for older horses.

Good luck!

Full Schedule of February Stakes Races

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