The Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks draw closer, and we move into the final phases of each track's prep series. This piece focuses on the final preps at Fair Grounds: the Louisiana Derby (G2) and the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2).
The Derby prep series and the Oaks prep series have had different complexions so far this spring. The fillies' series has featured a standout: FARRELL has swept the first two preps, and comes into the Fair Grounds Oaks the undisputed horse to beat. However, the Derby path at Fair Grounds (as it has been most everywhere) has been less direct. GUEST SUITE splashed home in the Lecomte (G3), but disappointed in the Risen Star (G2). GIRVIN asserted himself in that second prep. Untrapped is the only one who hit the board in both of those preps -- but instead of showing up in the Louisiana Derby, he shipped north to Hot Sprints and finished third in the Rebel (G2). Whether or not the Louisiana Derby brings much clarity to the muddled three-year-old picture, it will de facto guarantee its top two finishers a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate.
In addition to the races in Louisiana, Picks and Ponderings also previews Saturday's pair of three-year-old points races at Gulfstream in a separate piece.
Morning lines were not available at original publish time. Updated March 29 to reflect the anticipated scratch of SUMMER LUCK from the Fair Grounds Oaks, as well as to add morning lines.
Saturday, April 1: Fair Grounds Racecourse
Race 10: Twinspires.com Fair Grounds Oaks (G2), three-year-old fillies, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 4:41pm CDT
This year marks the 50th running of the Fair Grounds Oaks. Inaugurated in 1966, the race has been run every year since then except for 2006, when Fair Grounds was closed after Hurricane Katrina. The race first got a grade in 1982, and was promoted to its current Grade 2 status in 2001. For most of its history it was for three-year-olds -- but in 1978 it was run for three-year-old and four-year-old fillies. It has been contested at its current distance for its entire history except for 1977 and 1978, when it covered a mile and an eighth. Though it took until Tiffany Lass (1986) for the Fair Grounds Oaks to produce a Kentucky Oaks winner, the race has been a rich source of fillies decked in lilies since then. After her, eight more completed that double: Blushing K. D. (1997), Silverbulletday (1999), Ashado (2004), Summerly (2005), Proud Spell (2008), Rachel Alexandra (2009), Believe You Can (2010), and Untapable (2014).
Rachel Alexandra wins the 2009 Fair Grounds Oaks. Two starts later, she would win the Kentucky Oaks by 20 1/4 lengths.
This year's Fair Grounds Oaks drew a field of eight sophomore fillies to contend for a $400,000 purse, as well as Road to the Kentucky Oaks points (100-50-20-10) for the top four finishers. This field includes the dominant horse of the Fair Grounds prep series so far, FARRELL. As befits her breeding (a Malibu Moon half to Carpe Diem), she bloomed when stretching out to two turns for the Golden Rod (G2) last fall. Between that and the two Fair Grounds preps so far, she has won each of her two-turn starts with authority. FARRELL has shown the ability to win right on the lead, or to stalk off the pace if someone else takes initiative on the front. With wire-to-wire maiden winner DARIA'S ANGEL stepping into contention, FARRELL's stalking gear could come into play once again here. Though FARRELL will be a short price here, sometimes the best horse just wins. Without a surfeit of early gas, and without any other world-beaters in the field, she looks a clear standout to sweep the Oaks preps in the Big Easy.
Yes, MAJESTIC QUALITY and WICKED LICK have come home for second in the Rachel Alexandra (G2) and the Silverbulletday, respectively. But it's hard to see them turning the tables on FARRELL. If anyone springs the upset, it looks most likely to be Mark Casse's representative, CORPORATE QUEEN. (Casse originally had two entrants, but SUMMER LUCK is expected to scratch.) She does stretch to a route for the first time, but she should take well to it. She has a pair of seven-furlong starts under her belt -- but she is by Colonel John out of a mare whose two other winners did their best work at two turns. On pace, she rallied from midpack in both her sprint starts, but may situate herself a bit closer up with the stretch to two turns. She may be new to stakes company, but CORPORATE QUEEN has upside, and her connections inspire confidence.
VEXATIOUS tries stakes company for the first time. Though, she does return here to face fillies -- she tried males last time in an allowance-optional at Santa Anita, and finished a clear third behind well-regarded pair Battle of Midway and Reach the World. That wasn't bad at all, particularly considering both of those had started more recently and VEXATIOUS had not run since her maiden win back in November. The Fair Grounds Oaks has her second off the layoff, giving her a right to improve. And, with a better go of things early, she should be able to stalk in striking range of the front end early. The rider call also grabs attention. Kent Desormeaux keeps the mount on VEXATIOUS for trainer Neil Drysdale -- even though Desormeaux also booted home MAJESTIC QUALITY to a second-place finish in the Rachel Alexandra (G2) for his brother Keith, who sends her back out for the Fair Grounds Oaks.
#6 FARRELL (8/5)
#4 CORPORATE QUEEN (5/1)
#5 VEXATIOUS (6/1)
Longshot: #8 QUEEN BERNARDINA (20/1) is a bit of a flyer, but there are a few things to suggest she can at least spice up an exotic. Her tilt in the Martha Washington last out was flat, but it was her first race since November. She also gets a barn move here, from Donnie Von Hemel to Bret Calhoun. The move to the Calhoun barn is a strong statistic -- 24% winners, and a strong +$1.09 ROI. Based on the worktab, the move appears well-planned: QUEEN BERNARDINA has logged five drills over the Fair Grounds course, with the first one coming two weeks after the Martha Washington. Distance remains the question -- her last three starts may suggest she got a bit more from the Cherokee Run underneath than the Bernardini on top. But, if new rider Miguel Mena can get her closer to the pace like she was in her maiden-breaker, QUEEN BERNARDINA could run on for a share.
Race 11: Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (G2), three-year-olds, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 5:21pm CDT
The Louisiana Derby, which will be run for the 104th time this year, began its life in 1894 as the Crescent City Derby. Resurrected in 1897 for its second running, the race then took its current name. The race has been run at its current one and one eighth mile distance for most of its history (1897-1987, 2010-present); its first running came at a mile, and the races from 1988-2009 were a mile and a sixteenth. It has been graded since the beginning of North American stakes grades in 1976; it has been a Grade 2 through that period, except for a period between 1985 and 1998 when it was a Grade 3. To date, just two Louisiana Derby winners have won the Kentucky Derby as well: Black Gold (1924) and Grindstone (1996). One other Louisiana Derby runner also won the Kentucky Derby: Funny Cide (2003) finished third behind Peace Rules in New Orleans, but annexed the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Over time, it has been the Belmont in which Louisiana Derby horses have come to the winners' circle most often. Risen Star, winner of the 1988 Louisiana Derby, won both the Preakness and the Belmont. But, three other horses who contested the Louisiana Derby eventually won the Belmont: Creme Fraiche (2nd, 1985), Drosselmeyer (3rd, 2010), and Palace Malice (7th, 2013).
Grindstone edges clear to win the 1996 Louisiana Derby. Two starts later, he would nose out Cavonnier to prevail in the Kentucky Derby.
This year's Louisiana Derby once again offers a $1,000,000 purse and Kentucky Derby points (100-50-20-10) to its top four finishers. It drew a field of nine to fight for those spoils.
Two trainers are tied for the most Louisiana Derby victories ever, with three: Steve Asmussen and Todd Pletcher. Both show up in this year's renewal. Asmussen sends out LOCAL HERO, third in the Risen Star. LOCAL HERO had it his own way up front last out, and still faded to third. And, he won't have it that easy again here. Trainer Joe Sharp and owner Brad Grady, the folks behind Risen Star winner GIRVIN, also send out a pacemaker in HOTFOOT. HOTFOOT looks overmatched here -- all signs point to him serving rabbit duty. Pletcher sends out two entrants. One, MONACO, appeals little despite his flashy $1.3 million auction price and his noteworthy owners (the Coolmore lads and Mike Repole). MONACO will be forward, as well. Yes, he broke his maiden by 12 lengths last out at Tampa, but he has it as easily as he wanted. And, who did he beat? No one from that race has come back to win. And, second-place Ronanthetenor did not exactly come in there from a Triple Crown prep last out; he was previously second in a $15,000 maiden claimer at Hawthorne. Winner Theghostbdancing has grown into a very solid Chicago horse, with three wins since that maiden victory. He cleared his Illinois-bred one-other-than last Saturday in a three-horse photo. But Little Ike and Dakota Candy are a far cry from Triple Crown contenders, even in this murky year. MONACO may attract eyes on his connections and his purchase price, but he'll have to emerge victorious after bonking heads with LOCAL HERO and HOTFOOT before this space will take him seriously.
But, Pletcher also sends out PATCH -- and, now, we're talking. We're done with arcane digressions into maiden $15K races in Chicago. Yes, PATCH is only a maiden winner, just like his stablemate. But, he has already shown that he can rate off the pace for much of a race and then finish the job. That ability should suit this race -- it should not only keep him out of a battle up front, but also give him the jump on other serious contenders like GIRVIN and GUEST SUITE. This will be PATCH's first attempt going two turns, but his breeding cries out for it. He is a son of Belmont winner Union Rags, out of an A. P. Indy mare who has already produced a winner at nine panels. The biggest question with PATCH, of course, is whether he is just a Gulfstream Park Horse -- after all, he has run just twice, both times in Hallandale Beach. But, in a competitive field, in which PATCH will not go off the chalk? This space will happily side with a horse who should love the distance, handle the pace scenario, and who comes from a trainer who knows how to win a Louisiana Derby or three.
From there, we get to the winners of the other two preps at Fair Grounds. GIRVIN burst onto the scene with a commanding victory in the Risen Star last out. He chased midpack while LOCAL HERO went loose on the lead, and drew off late. Here, GIRVIN could well get a better setup. Not only does LOCAL HERO return, but MONACO should be forward, and GIRVIN's same-owner stablemate HOTFOOT should ensure they all make him some pace. A repeat of his last start does make him a threat here. GUEST SUITE also has a running style that should suit this field, though he ended up a bit farther off the pace than optimal last out in the Risen Star. Robby Albarado should have more to chase here, but may be better served reprising his midpack style instead of dropping him well to the back of the pack like last time. Still, GUEST SUITE was running on late last out. And, there is the chance that Neil Howard did not have GUEST SUITE quite as cranked for the Risen Star as he will for the Louisiana Derby. The sharp five-furlong works are a positive sign, and third off the lay should have him at a good point at his form cycle. This is a better field than he beat in the Lecomte, but if he brings his best, he contends.
#1 PATCH (9/2)
#8 GIRVIN (8/5)
#6 GUEST SUITE (4/1)
Longshot: #4 SENIOR INVESTMENT (12/1) makes his stakes debut here but arrives in solid form. He has crossed the wire first in each of his last three starts, though two starts back he was disqualified for interference. He has form at Fair Grounds, with his maiden win and his following start being sharp efforts over the oval. Those starts came at two turns, as well. SENIOR INVESTMENT will have to take a step forward on speed, but he could do so. He has had a month to come back from a clear allowance victory last out at Oaklawn, with some respectable drills back in New Orleans. And, he has the right running style for this race: an off-pace style, with some versatility in where to sit early. Trainer Ken McPeek's barn has been heating up a bit: he swept the exacta in the Bourbonette Oaks (G3) last weekend, and his longshot Blueridge Traveler finished a strong second in the Spiral (G3) there as well. Perhaps his hot streak travels south to New Orleans, and SENIOR INVESTMENT outruns his odds as well.