Thursday, January 22, 2015

FAIR GROUNDS FOCUS: Road to Louisiana Derby Day Vol. 1


Contact: Michael Adolphson

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FAIR GROUNDS FOCUS:  Road to Louisiana Derby Day 2015 – Vol. 1                                   

·        3-Year-Olds:  International Star Invades, War Story Best of Locals

·        3-Year-Old Fillies:  Jones Firing on All Cylinders




            The Grade III $200,000 Lecomte Stakes on Jan. 17 provided the local fans with their initial taste of the Triple Crown trail and the first of the three major local graded stakes for sophomores.  The race shaped up like a showdown of Florida vs. Louisiana with four invaders from the Sunshine State and a formidable quintet of local charges waiting for them.  Unfortunately for the locals – despite a fine showing by three of those five – Gulfstream Park-based International Star seized the victory in the final sixteenth of a mile to earn owners Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey and trainer Mike Maker a second consecutive conquering of the Lecomte. 


            Maker, who also has a string based locally, quickly returned the son of 2000 Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus to the greater Miami area and will now take a “serious look” at the local Grade II $400,000 Risen Star Stakes.  Last year, the same connections’ Lecomte winner Vicar’s in Trouble finished third after a troubled trip in the Risen Star and then returned five weeks later to win the meet centerpiece Louisiana Derby.


            Of the locals, Loooch Racing Stable and Chris Dunn’s recent acquisition War Story gave a superb showing in his runner-up effort.  Slowest out of the gate after a problematic start, the son of Northern Afleet rallied widest of all to finish a solid second, 2½ lengths astern International Star.  The race was the second since his private acquisition and first loss in three career attempts.  According to his connections, the Tom Amoss-trained colt will most likely move on to the Risen Star.  His conditioner looks forward to the five-week break between races after having only 20 days’ rest prior to the Lecomte.


            Mike McCarty’s Steve Asmussen-trained Tiznow R J and Rigney Racing’s Phil Bauer-trained Another Lemon Drop gave fine showings of themselves to finish third and fourth in their stakes debuts.  Both locally based charges made bold bids in early stretch and have the stamina (being by Tiznow and Lemon Drop Kid, respectively) to move forward off their performances. 


The disappointments of the race came from the William S. Farish’s locally based Eagle and Team Valor International and Southern Equine Stable’s Florida invader Savoy Stomp.  Eagle, a Neil Howard trainee, was the morning line and post time favorite (3-1) and suffered from a wide trip.  According to jockey Brian Hernandez, Jr., the son of Candy Ride (who stands at Farish’s Lane’s End Farm) was slammed in the first turn and never had a chance to show his true colors – ultimately resulting in the first poor showing of his five-race career.  Expected to come back in the Risen Star, the emblazoned chestnut will look to return to the form that saw him finishing a flying third in the Grade II $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club, beaten less than a length by next-out Grade III $200,000 Jerome Stakes winner El Kabeir.  Fasig-Tipton Saratoga 2013 sale topper Savoy Stomp started slowly and never engaged his rivals enough to make a dent under Hall of Famer Mike Smith in an uninspiring performance.  It was a rare miss for the usually Fair Grounds-effective Todd Pletcher barn.


            Looking to the future, one cannot mention impressive local sophomores without referring to Fox Hill Farm’s regally bred Exodus, who won with authority in his third career race on Jan. 4 going six furlongs for trainer Larry Jones.  By Medaglia d’Oro out of multiple Grade I-winning seven-furlong specialist Stop Traffic, Exodus was a $600,000 purchase at the same sale as Savoy Stomp and is a half-brother to Cross Traffic (by Unbridled’s Song), who won the 1 1/8-miles Grade I Whitney Handicap in only his fifth career start in 2013.  Built similarly to his brother with a great deal of muscle and an excellent shoulder, the bay colt earned a 91 Beyer Speed Figure for his performance earlier this month, which was also his first try on a fast surface. 


            Exodus joins another noteworthy local winner in Columbine Stable’s Al Stall, Jr.-trained Waging War this Saturday in the $50,000 Allen’s Landing Stakes at Sam Houston Race Park.  A son of War Front out of a Seeking the Gold half-sister to Grade I winning turf horse Stroll, Waging War is riddled with the classy bloodlines of his breeder, Claiborne Farm.  Waging War won a six-furlong allowance on Jan. 2 in impressive fashion and – like Exodus – is most likely looking to use a positive showing in the seven-furlong stakes as a prep for the Risen Star four weeks later. 


            Locally based sophomores who recently raced elsewhere and could conceivably compete at Fair Grounds next out include the Steve Asmussen-trained duo of Jerry Durant’s Lucky Player and Clark Brewster’s Bayerd.  Both stakes-winning charges ran in Monday’s $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park after a series of local works, finishing second and eighth, respectively.


            While nothing has been reported either way, it is worth noting that trainer Keith Desormeaux keeps a healthy string of horses locally and could conceivably have one of Fair Grounds’ major sophomore Kentucky Derby preps in mind for Grade I $2,000,000 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red.  Recently second in the voting for Eclipse champion juvenile, the son of Afleet Alex has had four workouts at Santa Anita Park since returning from a break, including a six-furlong move in 1:14 flat on Saturday from the gate.


Three locally based colts worth watching who exited a swift renewal of the $50,000 Sugar Bowl Stakes on Dec. 20 are William and Corinne’s Asmussen-trained Cinco Charlie, Holmark Stables IV’s Richie Scherer-trained Bourbon Cowboy and Klaravich Stables and William Lawrence’s Amoss-trained Control Stake.  Earning a 97 Beyer Speed Figure in victory, Cinco Charlie returns this Saturday in the one-mile $100,000 Riley Allison Derby at Sunland Park.  A photo-finish second in the Sugar Bowl, Bourbon Cowboy returns in a 5½-furlong turf sprint on Friday after opting out of the stretch-out in the Lecomte.  The quickest to come back off the Sugar Bowl, Control Stake returned on three weeks’ rest to take the two-turn seven-furlong $75,000 Big Drama Stakes at Delta Downs on Jan. 10.  Proven around two bends and winning easily by two lengths, the race may have set up the son of Discreetly Mine for a return to tougher competition in the Risen Star.


Lastly, it may seem preposterous to consider a turf sprint maiden winner by Kitten’s Joy a sophomore to watch on the road to the Louisiana Derby, but one who breaks the mold is Eden Grey’s Kitten.  On New Year’s Day, the Louisiana-bred chestnut colt annihilated a 5½-furlong maiden special weight field by 10¼ lengths for trainer Steve Flint and owner Whispering Oaks Farm.  The handsome colt hails from a female family lush with classy dirt performers, including Travers Stakes winner Corporate Report, and Flint quickly reported after the victory that Eden Grey’s Kitten handles the dirt as well as the turf.





            Trainer Larry Jones took his 29% strike percentage from 2014 and just kept on rolling into the new year.  The highlight of this momentum came on Jan. 17 when the barn entered a duo of horses, each, in two of the five stakes on the blockbuster card and won both in runaway fashion.  The more impressive of the two was easily the eight-length drubbing Fletcher and Carolyn Gray’s I’m a Chatterbox gave her rivals in the $125,000 Silverbulletday Stakes.    Thrashing a field that included a Breeders’ Cup runner-up and three last-out stakes winners, the daughter of Munnings went wire-to-wire and was even eased up late while much the best after setting honest fractions of :23.43 and :47.93 under Florent Geroux.


            I’m a Chatterbox is one of at least three sophomore fillies in the Jones barn that could possibly wind up in the gate for the Grade III $175,000 Rachel Alexandra Stakes on Feb. 21, or even the Grade II $400,000 Fair Grounds Oaks on Mar. 28.  Her Brereton C. Jones-owned stablemate Lovely Maria, who worked a solid half-mile on Thursday morning in :48.80, was originally on schedule to line up in the Silverbulletday gate, but (Larry) Jones decided to give her more time.  Fourth last out after a rough trip in the $100,000 Trapeze Stakes at Remington Park, she was a good second in two consecutive allowances prior to that.  The third member of the Jones triad is Tommy Ligon and Michael Pressley’s Divine Dawn, who retreated to fifth in the Silverbulletday after chasing her stablemate.  Possible to return to turf next out, the daughter of Divine Park does own a win over the dirt in her October debut at Keeneland.


The two most accomplished fillies on the grounds come from the adroit operations of Wayne Catalano and Al Stall, Jr.  Gary and Mary West’s West Coast Belle and Klaravich Stables and William Lawrence’s Top Decile both disappointed in the Silverbulletday, but have every right to improve next out.  Winner of the Grade II $200,000 Golden Rod in November, Catalano-trained West Coast Belle lost for the first time in four starts after a belated bid in the Silverbulletday, while twice Grade I-placed Stall pupil Top Decile was never a factor after a very wide trip. 


            While not as accomplished as the aforementioned pentad, one of most promising sophomore fillies on the grounds may be Charles Fipke’s regally bred Dallas Stewart trainee Forever Unbridled.  In three career races, the daughter of Unbridled’s Song out of Kentucky Oaks winner Lemons Forever was second in a Churchill Downs maiden to highly regarded Silverpocketsful, won a two-turn Fair Grounds maiden in impressive fashion and was a game, albeit distant, runner-up in the Silverbulletday. 


            Speaking of silver bullets, one cannot speak of sophomore fillies at the New Orleans oval without mention of Regis Racing’s Steve Asmussen-trained gray rocket Shook Up. A daughter of Tapit out of Grade I-winning Awesome Again mare Sugar Shake, Shook Up broke her maiden over a muddy, sealed surface in early January by a whopping 13 lengths and earned herself the highest two-turn Beyer Speed Figure (94) of any sophomore filly in America thus far in 2015.  To put such into perspective, I’m a Chatterbox earned a 93 for her Silverbulletday score.  If all goes “perfectly” – per Asmussen – Shook Up will meet that rival next in the Rachel Alexandra.




            Next week’s Fair Grounds Focus will dive even more into the existing 3-year-olds developing toward the spring, as well as delve into the locally based older horses (both turf and dirt) – including a look into the strong hand trainer Larry Jones holds – including an ‘Ace’ or two – the developing older horse contingent of the always-patient Al Stall, Jr. and the unstoppable Louisiana-bred grass phenom String King. 


Fair Grounds Focus: Road to Louisiana Derby Day 2015 is a weekly roundup of the equine athletes based at the New Orleans oval – as well as those from out of town – competing in the four major divisions that culminate with the corresponding marquee stakes races of the meet: the Grade II $750,000 Louisiana Derby (3-year-olds), Grade II $400,000 Fair Grounds Oaks (3-year-old fillies), Grade II $400,000 New Orleans Handicap (older horses) and Grade II $300,000 Mervin H. Muniz, Jr. Memorial Handicap (turf males). 





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