A weekly series analyzing recent maiden winners poised to join the Road to the Kentucky Derby:

Hard Lighting

The third time was the charm for Hard Lighting, a son of Hard Spun out of the Malibu Moon mare The Magic Stone. After finishing fifth and second in a pair of competitive maiden races at Gulfstream Park, Hard Lighting battled to a tenacious victory over the same track on May 24.

Favored at 3-5 in a mile maiden special weight rained off the turf course, Hard Lighting was patiently ridden by jockey Leonel Reyes, settling about four lengths behind early fractions of :24.15 and :46.31 while racing over a sloppy track. But Hard Lighting advanced strongly up the inside on the turn and seized command at the top of the stretch, opening up a 2 1/2-length lead down the lane before digging deep to hold off a late challenge from second choice Leading West. At the finish line, Hard Lighting was clear by a neck in 1:37.14, with Leading West pulling 11 3/4 lengths clear of the rest.

Trained by Alexis Delgado for Partner Stable, Hard Lighting sold for just $55,000 as a yearling, but his pedigree suggests classic distances are within reach and the future could be bright for this improving prospect.

What a Country

Though What a Country showed flashes of potential in his first three starts, the gelded son of Verrazano took a step forward when graduating in a 1 1/16-mile maiden special weight on Saturday at Churchill Downs. Disregarded at 17-1 while facing 10 rivals, the Gary Hartlage trainee was reserved about seven lengths off the pace through solid early fractions of :23.88 and :47.55.

But with Joe Johnson in the saddle, What a Country began to advance around the far turn, moving into contention while racing very wide. He still trailed by several lengths at the top of the stretch, and by a length at the eighth pole, but What a Country’s rally was resolute and he forged clear late in the game to score by 1 1/4 lengths in 1:43.75.

Owned by Baby Talk Stable, What a Country was produced by the Broken Vow mare Broken Silence, previously the dam of Silverbulletday S. winner Stronger Than Ever. What a Country wasn’t an expensive yearling, selling for just $37,000, but he’s already earned back his purchase price and appears to be on the upswing.