This weekend, Picks and Ponderings heads south to the Fair Grounds for its Road to the Derby Kickoff Day. True to its name, its series of Kentucky Derby prep races gets underway with the Grade III Lecomte Stakes. The card also sees the fillies kick off the series of Oaks preps at Fair Grounds in the Silverbulletday Stakes. In addition to these races for three-year-olds, three races for older horses round out the day's festivities: The Col. E. R. Bradley Handicap (GIII) for older turf routers, the listed Louisiana Stakes for the handicap division, and the Marie G. Krantz Memorial Stakes for older filly and mare turf routers.
Authorship of each race in this piece is denoted by initials at the end of the piece, PM for Paul Mazur and NN for Nicolle Neulist. All races in this preview are slated for Saturday January 17. In races carded for the turf, selections are given "turf only". Morning line odds were not available at original publish time.
Updated on January 15 to add morning lines. Updated January 17th to reflect scratch of GRAND CONTENDER from the Bradley, as well as the scratch of PADDY'S NOTES from the Louisiana.
Fair Grounds -- Race 7 -- Louisiana Stakes -- 1 1/16 miles on dirt -- post time 3:25 pm CT
Historically called the Louisiana Handicap, this year's version is being run under stakes conditions with allowances instead of a list of handicap weights, and thus is re-christened the Louisiana Stakes. The race was inaugurated in 1942 at a distance of 1 1/8 miles, but has only been run at 1 1/16 miles since 1952. Its most notable winner was also its first winner: Whirlaway, the 1941 Triple Crown winner, who got home first despite carrying a 130 pound impost. He won the 1942 Louisiana Handicap en route to his second consecutive Horse of the Year title. Fair Grounds stakes namesake Tenacious lived up to his name in this race, winning it three consecutive years: 1958, 1959, and 1960. The only other horse to win the Louisiana Handicap twice was List, who won it outright in 1972 and then dead heated with Guitar Player in 1973. In that 1973 dead heat, List toted 124 pounds, compared to Guitar Player's 113. This year, familiar Chicago-area runner and Greg Geier trainee FORDUBAI will vie to join Tenacious and List in this select group.
This year's 69th running of the Louisiana Stakes offers a purse of $75,000, and drew a field of six runners. Defending champion FORDUBAI is not the most consistent horse in training: he is not coming into this year's edition in the greatest form, but he was not coming into last year's in the greatest form, either. Last out he was third beaten 4 3/4 lengths in the Tenacious, the local prep, in which HARD ACES finished second off of a career best effort. FORDUBAI is not without a chance here -- then again, in this short six-horse field, PADDY'S NOTES seemed the only runner in truly over his head, and he scratched the morning of the race. Still, FORDUBAI looks less than likely to pull the repeat. Even though he is a four-year-old facing the handicap division for the first time, ALBANO seems the strongest option in this field. He will likely be forwardly placed, but has shown an ability to sit a bit off the pace well. He showed at three that he is fast enough to stand up against this field. Even though he has been on the shelf since a disappointing third-place finish in the Smarty Jones Stakes (GIII) at Parx on September 1, he has been working strongly and well leading up to this race. He also runs for trainer Larry Jones, an excellent 33% (out of 85 starts) with runners coming off lays of three months or longer. ALBANO has never missed the board at this distance, and is a solid 5-2-2-0 at the Fair Grounds. Along the same lines of horses for this course, we come to NATES MINESHAFT. He has raced over the Fair Grounds dirt six times, with five wins and a third-place finish. That lone third-place finish came last out, but at a six-furlong distance. He stretches out to two turns for the first time since 2013, and is 7-5-1-0 at this distance on the main track. He has put up four sharp workouts since his last outing, and should be fit and ready here. Pacewise, he has a strong chance of setting the fractions here, but has shown some ability to gut it out with some early pressure, especially if he is running in a field that fits him classwise. This race has just such a field; NATES MINESHAFT is probably not a graded stakes calibre horse anymore, but even his current speed and form stack up well in this listed group. Finally, last year's second-place finisher GRAND CONTENDER deserves a look, assuming he runs here. The outside post is not great for a speed horse like he is, but he showed in his Texas Mile (GIII) win that he has a ratable dimension, as well. His Fair Grounds form has been a bit questionable, but he did score his first win over that dirt course last out, winning a washed-out Buddy Diliberto as easily as a horse could have. He is a strong 7-2-2-1 at this distance, and runs for a Tom Amoss barn that is firing at an unreal 44% on the Fair Grounds meet. Amoss is also 33% with runners third off a lay. James Graham, the hottest rider at the Fair Grounds, has the call. Graham has been 21-44 with Amoss over the last two months, and in the money with 38 of those 44 runners. Should GRAND CONTENDER opt for the Louisiana and not the Bradley, one cannot count him out.
GRAND CONTENDER is cross-entered in the Col E. R. Bradley Handicap (GIII). As of the morning of race day, he'll face the starter here.
#5 ALBANO (9/5)
#1 NATES MINESHAFT (5/1)
#6 GRAND CONTENDER (5/2)
Longshot: The longshot writer stepped out for some chicory coffee and beignets. -- NN
Fair Grounds -- Race 8 -- G3 Col. E. R. Bradley Handicap -- About 1 1/16 miles on Turf -- post time 3:55 pm CT
For more information on the race, consult Paul Mazur (PM)'s preview on this race for Blood-Horse.
The first graded stakes of the 2014-2015 Fair Grounds meet sees older types take to the green. The Grade Three, $125,000 Col E. R. Bradley Handicap is that race, carded as Fair Grounds's 8th on its "Road to the Derby Kickoff Day". The namesake of the race is Colonel Edward Riley Bradley (1859-1946), who was involved in many facets of the thoroughbred industry. Born in Central Pennsylvania, he relocated to Chicago in the 1890s and ran a successful bookmaking shop. Bradley, who ascended into well-to-do-circles in the 1890s, purchased his first horse in 1898 and in 1906 bought Ash Grove Stock Farm. Ash Grove Stock Farm became Idle Hour Stock Farm under Bradley's direction (and property that in later years would become Darby Dan Farm). Bradley's ownership of racehorses included four Kentucky Derby winners, three victories in the Preakness, and two more in the Belmont Stakes. Known also for importing French foundation broodmare La Troienne to America, he's also known for his brief six-year ownership of Fair Grounds in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Three-time winner and Fair Grounds stakes namesake Dixie Poker Ace (1992-94), Grade 1 winner Purim (2007), double winner French Beret (2008, 2009), and double G3 Washington Park winner Gran Estreno (2011) all are among the notable victors of the G3 Bradley.
VILLANDRY may have made a trainer change from Charles LoPresti from David Carroll, but if he's retained the form from 2014, he'll be the hero again as he was when he took down the G3 River City in November at Churchill. He's been chasing around quality horses throughout the most recent starts, like Red Rifle (next-out G2 Hawthorne Gold Cup winner) in the G3 Sycamore, Big Blue Kitten (3rd in the G1 Pattison Canadian International) in the Lure, Nikki's Sandcastle (G3 Hanshin Cup winner) in the G2 Firecracker won by a then in-form Silver Max. VILLANDRY makes a nominal trainer change to David Carroll, recruiting Florent Geroux to ride. That Geroux/Carroll team has hit the board in the last four starts they've worked together, and it's further worth noting VILLANDRY earned his best figure racing against the grain in the G1 Northern Dancer in Canada. He should get pace to chase and that should play into his swing-wide style that while successful in the past at Fair Grounds, isn't the lead-pipe cinch to win. While Catalano is high on INFINITE MAGIC off his last out in N3X company, HIGHBALL ranks the better of the two. He hit the podium in the summer in the G3 American Derby at Catalano's (and this space's) summer stomping grounds of Arlington. Winner three back of a first-level allowance, he ran a good second in the washed-off Woodchopper against sophomores. Perhaps third start off the freshening he's coming into his own. Still, he's matured (in the eyes of Catalano) and does show a zippy recent local drill. In the past, picking a speed horse on the Fair Grounds turf was a sign of insanity, as the course played to rally-wide closers. Word on the street this year is the course isn't the typical "pick-a-closer" style, and you can do damage if you're forwardly placed. GRAND CONTENDER would hae been that in his grass debut, but he's defected to the Louisiana Handicap earlier in the day. Perhaps a homebred from the Ramseys, GENTLEMAN'S KITTEN, can be the controlling speed that hangs around longer than expected. While beaten soundly by VILLANDRY last out, he did hit the podium in a minor stakes two back at Remington and three back whistled on a "yielding" course as controlling speed at Ellis. Without GRAND CONTENDER to harass him, maybe GENTLEMAN'S KITTEN, and on a course that should have give, controls the pace and hangs around for a piece. Ran a credible but wide fourth over the New Orleans grass last year in the G3 Fair Grounds Handicap and does sport an additional win over this lawn. Mike Smith has the mount, as he's in town for the stakes quintet.
#9 VILLANDRY (9/5)
#3 HIGHBALL (10/1)
#1 GENTLEMAN'S KITTEN (9/2)
Longshot: #5 STRING KING (9/2) may be the king of the Louisiana-bred turf division, but he did run a credible fourth in this race last year. It's nice to see a state-bred be able to duplicate their talents in tougher open company, and STRING KING might be able to pull things off should a top contender or two throw a clunker. As he's the king of the state-bred sod group, he's earned a solid record over the New Orleans lawn (ten starts, five wins, eight times in the top three). And he's also got a very solid grass finisher in James Graham to boot him home, as Graham got the candy with him in the Louisiana Champions Day Turf last time out against the state-bred grass gang. He's stepping up off the stakes victory from state-bred to graded, but an affinity for the course and a sharp rider might just make that steep jump not so steep. --PM
Fair Grounds -- Race 9 -- Silverbulletday Stakes -- One Mile and Seventy Yards on Dirt -- post time 4:24 pm CT
The series of Kentucky Oaks prep races at Fair Grounds begins with the Silverbulletday Stakes. The race was instituted in 1992 and originally named after Tiffany Lass, who is now the namesake of a different stakes at Fair Grounds. It was renamed in 2010 to honour Silverbulletday, who had been inducted into the Hall of Fame the previous year. Silverbulletday was the American Champion Two Year Old Filly in 1998, and then the American Champion Three Year Old Filly in 1999. Though Silverbulletday did not contest this race (then known as the Tiffany Lass Stakes), she decisively won two Kentucky Oaks prep races at the Fair Grounds in 1999: the Davona Dale Stakes (GIII) and the Fair Grounds Oaks (GIII). She did win the Kentucky Oaks in 1999, as well as the Black-Eyed Susan, the Alabama, and the Gazelle. One filly has won the Silverbulletday on the way to a Kentucky Oaks victory: Believe You Can, who kicked off her three-year-old campaign here, and also won the Fair Grounds Oaks (GII) on her path to Kentucky Oaks glory. Another notable winner of this race is 2004 winner Lotta Kim. She never raced again after winning this race, but she produced 2009 Kentucky Oaks hero Rachel Alexandra. This year's renewal of the Silverbulletday Stakes drew a field of nine runners who will vie for a share of a $125,000 purse as well as Road to the Kentucky Oaks points (10-4-2-1) for the top four finishers.
This race provides an early-season matchup of two of the early heavyweights on the Kentucky Oaks trail: WEST COAST BELLE and TOP DECILE. Both have shown significant off-pace prowess -- and though MONEY'SONCHARLOTTE appears to be the only one-way speed, there are enough others in the field who have shown the desire to be on or near the lead that these two should have something at which to run late. Still, TOP DECILE has also shown the versatility to run well from the front as well as off-pace. The outside post is hardly a plus, but she has enough else going for her to make her dangerous. She finished a close second from an outside post in both the Alcibiades (GI) and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (GI). She has been on the shelf since the Breeders' Cup, but has been working just like herself leading to this race, and trainer Al Stall is 26% off these similar lays. She has been working at Fair Grounds, and clearly pointed to this race. Though TOP DECILE lost previous rider Rosie Napravnik to retirement, she gets top big-race rider Mike Smith to ride this time out. If TOP DECILE can build at all on her form at two, it is hard to see her outside draw stopping her from winning here. TOP DECILE's biggest threat comes in the form of the undefeated WEST COAST BELLE, winner of the Golden Rod (GII) last out. She convincingly beat two next-out allowance winners (Simply Confection and Taylor S) in the Rags to Riches, and then stretched to 1 1/16 miles and won clearly in the Golden Rod. Shaun Bridgmohan rode that day; he returns here. She has not raced since November 29, but trainer Wayne Catalano wins at 17% off similar-length lays. This runner faces the toughest crowd of her career to date, but has been intentionally pointed here, and will contend if she runs back to or improves upon her form in the fall. Beyond these top two, it was a close call between DIVINE DAWN and FOREVER UNBRIDLED, but the former seems to have a bit more upside. FOREVER UNBRIDLED has won over the same distance and track, a plus, but trainer Dallas Stewart has such a tendency to not get the job done on stakes days that she will be hard to take except for undersides of intra-race exotics. Instead, let's consider a newer shooter. DIVINE DAWN takes her first step into stakes company and stretches out to a route for the first time. The humans behind her could not be better, with 31% Fair Grounds trainer Larry Jones and his go-to jockey Kerwin Clark in her corner. Clark has ridden DIVINE DAWN in both her starts to date; they mesh well. She wired her maiden win, but showed last out in an allowance that she could sit patiently off the early pace. That allowance win was on turf, but the maiden win was on the dirt at Keeneland. There she was able to fend off a contested pace virtually from wire to wire, showing tenacity. Though her ability to stretch to a Classic distance seems questionable, the immediate question here is whether she can handle a mile and seventy yards. That seems reasonable enough for a daughter of Divine Park out of a Friends Lake mare.
#9 TOP DECILE (8/5)
#2 WEST COAST BELLE (2/1)
#3 DIVINE DAWN (5/1)
Longshot: It has been hard to count out either trainer Larry Jones or jockey Florent Geroux this Fair Grounds meet. Jones is firing at 31% on the meet, and Geroux has a 17% win rate so far - including a four-win day on January 8. Though they have not been sending out horses together, that changes in the Silverbulletday with #1 I’M A CHATTERBOX (8/1). This filly broke her maiden at first asking for trainer Ken McPeek, finished third in an allowance optional after that, and then was fourth behind WEST COAST BELLE in the Goldenrod last out. Since then, she switched to the Jones barn, and has been working lights-out at Fair Grounds. Jones is also a sharp 25% with horses coming in off of similar length lays. She won her maiden race from a close-stalking place early, but also showed the ability to stay interested from off the pace in the Golden Rod, despite fading late. That said, I'M A CHATTERBOX seems most interesting as a front-end possibility given her ability to put up an early pace as fast as anyone here combined with Geroux's strong record with ratable yet forwardly placed types. -- NN
Fair Grounds -- Race 10 -- Marie G. Krantz Memorial Handicap -- About One and One Sixteenth miles on Turf -- post time 4:54 pm CT
The youngest stakes on the January 17 program is the Krantz Memorial, run for the twentieth time. The race pays homage to Marie G. Krantz (1935-2003), a Fair Grounds Hall of Fame inductee. Krantz in the late 1980s (with her son, Bryan) carried the torch for germinating off-track betting in Louisiana in the 1980s. She purchased Fair Grounds in 1990 and guided it through a fire in 1993 that wiped out the grandstand a rebuilding in 1997. She served as Chairman of the Board of Fair Grounds from 1990 until her death. The female complement of the G3 Bradley Handicap, it is at the same distance and surface - about 1 1/16 miles on the turf. The purse for the Krantz is less than half of its graded brother, with sixty grand on the line. The Krantz began life as the Victoria Lass Stakes, honoring one of Krantz's best known runners. Notable heroines include Hallowed Dreams (2001), who ran up a sixteen-race winning streak that was equaled the record for the time; Daisy Devine (2013) a course-lover who also won the 2012 G1 Jenny Wiley; and EDEN PRAIRIE (2014), for the same connections as Chicago fixture Mister Marti Gras.
Trainer Michael Stidham has three to face the starter in the Krantz Memorial, but his go-to rider (be it at Fair Grounds or at Arlington) is James Graham. The Graham/Stidham team, in the last two months, hits at 29% wins and 71% in the money. Even more, they've won twice and been third twice in the most recent week of racing. They're the humans behind NOTTE D'ORO, the choice of this space. NOTTE D'ORO beat a next out winner Compelling Case (also a member of the female daisycutting Illinois-bred stakes quality group) last out to clear the two-other-than allowance condition. After a summer off she's done nicely in the fall races: two wins and a close up fifth at Churchill, Keeneland, and Fair Grounds. Her work has been at two turns and the win last time was at this race's distance. Pacewise, NOTTE D'ORO should get the set up from a large field and from one-way runners like MAID ON A MISSION. In fact, MAID ON A MISSION scrambles the pace enough against Fair Grounds-loving EDEN PRAIRIE. EDEN PRAIRIE likes the turf in New Orleans, as she's four for six in the win column with an additional second. A last out winner of the Blushing K. D. stakes over the Fair Grounds green, EDEN PRAIRIE does her best work in two turn mile category races on the lead, but with MAID ON A MISSION she won't get a free lunch. Still, EDEN PRAIRIE does like these weeds and won this exact race last year. Florent Geroux has the mount, as he did last time in winning just before Christmas. EVERY WAY enters the Krantz after being on the shelf for the last quarter of 2014. Last seen in the Tranquility Lake Stakes at Del Mar, she turned in some solid summer form with a win in an N3X allowance/$80K optional claimer, a head loss in a Twin Cities stakes, and a half length behind I'm Already Sexy in the G3 Modesty. EVERY WAY does have a win over the local lawn, and isn't facing the I'm Already Sexy or Moulin de Mougin types she chased around in the summer. Twice before in 2014 she came off layoffs and knocked down victories in those events as well.
#5 NOTTE D'ORO (8/1)
#10 EDEN PRAIRIE (4/1)
#11 EVERY WAY (9/2)
Longshot: It probably took the first two starts of 2014 for #8 SAMIAM (12/1) to get into form. And once SAMIAM got into form, she won a twice-other-than allowance at Delaware and put in some excusable races three back (too short) and last out (too wide). Sandwiched between troubled trips is a second in a three-other-than at Keeneland. That second at Keeneland and the last win at Delaware came when Kerwin Clark was in the irons, and he's named to ride SAMIAM. Perhaps he fits her best and can do the best with her. Making the case better for her is that the trainer is one for five (though the sample is only races) in returning off a medium-length layoff. With an Amoss horse and the Stidham triplet in here, SAMIAM could easily be ignored on the tote. --PM
Fair Grounds -- Race 11 -- G3 LeComte Stakes -- One Mile and Seventy Yards on Dirt -- post time 5:24 pm CT
Functioning as a Louisiana Derby prep and a Kentucky Derby prep, the Grade Three LeComte Stakes carries two hundred thousand in purse funds and is the first of three graded mileposts on the New Orleans road to the Kentucky Derby. Shelved in 2006 as Fair Grounds rebuilt from Hurricane Katrina, this sophomore event will be contested for the seventy-first time and is the richest of the day's stakes. It also carries Kentucky Derby points (10-4-2-1 for the first through fourth place finishers, respectively), as do other January prep races. The race honors LeComte, who raced in the 1850s and won eleven times in America. LeComte is also the half-sister to Prioress (better known as the first American horse to win an English race and the namesake of a Saratoga stakes). LeComte is also half-brother to Lexington, the winner of the 1853 Phoenix Stakes at Keeneland. No horse has won both the LeComte and the Kentucky Derby, yet this race does have its share of notable winners. 1982 LeComte winner Linkage was that year's Preakness runner-up. 2007 winner Hard Spun was the Kentucky Derby runnerup. 2009 winner Freisan Fire also swept that year's New Orleans based prep races of the LeComte, Risen Star, and Louisiana Derby. 2013 winner Oxbow won the Preakness five months after annexing this race.
Post eleven may not be a picnic, but the form of EAGLE from the fall of his frosh campaign has gotten flattered in recent weeks. Two back he beat a S. F. Davis contender in My Johnny Be Good. Last out he chased El Kabeir, who won the G3 Jerome two weeks ago. Already a two-turn winner, EAGLE should find today's mile and seventy well within his distance scope and responded well off a layoff in September at Churchill. Works are fine for this Candy Ride colt who projects to get a pressing trip flanking TIZNOW R J or HERO OF HUMOR. A concern is getting flung wide on the turn as a consequence of breaking from post eleven. But not a lot of these runners want to be forward and perhaps he settles into a good cadence not that wide. FOUR LEAF CHIEF may have been up against it last time in one of those one-mile short-stretch races Fair Grounds brought out of the mothballs. Forced to close at a closer-unfriendly configuration, the three-year-old by Lookin at Lucky also didn't do well in pre-gate activity. It was the first time in open company for FOUR LEAF CHIEF who two back took down a Louisiana-bred stakes on Delta Jackpot Day as the 19-10 favorite. Deserves another chance in open company at a more fair distance (mile and seventy, as opposed to a flat mile) and makes a rider switch to Geroux. While FOUR LEAF CHIEF will need the speeds to get busy, don't think it will as slow paced as was it last time out. In that one mile race on December 28th, WAR STORY got the better of FOUR LEAF CHIEF. WAR STORY, by Northern Afleet, is a Tom Amoss trainee and has the riding services of James Graham. That's enough to make him a contender, given Amoss is hitting at 44% wins on the meet and the Graham/Amoss team is knocking the cover off the ball at 44%/86% ITM in the last two months and the forty-four times they've worked together. Goes second off the layoff after winning at a mile. Despite the blazing connections, Amoss horses (though Mylute is an exception) usually fall flat as sophomores and thus he's one to include rather than to isolate.
#11 EAGLE (3/1)
#3 FOUR LEAF CHIEF (10/1)
#4 WAR STORY (9/2)
Longshot: Most everyone comes in with two turn form, but #7 RUNHAPPY (8/1) is a stretchout in this stakes, who is also jumping numerous rungs. Last out he was a winner of a maiden special weight at Turfway. In start two he'll jump to Grade Three company. Yet he won by a zip code at Turfway and did so even while veering in the lane and exhibiting greenness in the eyes of the chartcaller. As a Super Saver kiddie, RUNHAPPY should be better now that he's a newly-turned three-year-old. And Super Saver himself was a horse whose form turned a corner (in Arkansas) and then won the Kentucky Derby. If RUNHAPPY turns said corner here, he could be tough. Aiding the cause, progression or not, is him being a stretchout that puts him close to the lead and in a field lacking a dead-set front-running pace-setter, he may get brave on the front end. As he didn't win at the sexy fall venues of Churchill or Keeneland or Belmont, there should be some oomph in his price. --PM
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