BY CLARK SPENCER
It may be January, but it’s not too early to start thinking about the Kentucky Derby.
The road to the May 7 Run for the Roses begins on Saturday at Gulfstream Park when newly turned 3-year-olds hit the track in a pair of $100,000 stakes, the Hutcheson and Mucho Macho Man.
The Grade III Hutcheson marks the 67th running of the early seven-furlong test for 3-year-olds.
Sheikh of Sheikhs and Noholdingback Bear, one-two finishers in a Breeders’ Cup undercard stakes at Keeneland, return for their 2016 debuts in the Hutcheson field of seven.
Notable past winners of the Hutcheson include Spectacular Bid, Holy Bull, Swale, Housebuster and Fly So Free.
For 3-year-olds already prepared to go a longer distance, the Mucho Macho Man at a one-turn mile provides an early test.
Awesome Speed, who is coming off two straight wins at Maryland’s Laurel as a 2-year-old in 2015, is listed as the 9-5 favorite. He’ll face six challengers in the stakes, including 5-2 second program choice Fellowship.
In October, Fellowship was an impressive winner of the 1 1/16-mile In Reality, the finale of the Florida Sire Stakes series for 2-year-olds, surging from 12th to win by 4 1/2 lengths.
“I’m not sure how much potential he’s got,” said his trainer, Stanley Gold. “It makes you hopeful that he’ll keep on going and go long because of his running style. We’ll find out.”
Gulfstream is also featuring three other stakes on Saturday’s card.
-- A whopping $1.338 billion was wagered on Gulfstream live races in 2015, the track announced. That’s a track record, and represented a 14-percent increase from it’s 2014 handle.
“We’re pleased that our business continues to grow as we build a year-round program in Florida,” said track vice president of racing P.J Campo.