This week the Derby trail and the Oaks trails wind through New Orleans. For the Oaks-bound, Saturday's card features the $150,000 Silverbulletday stakes at a mile and seventy yards on dirt. One race later, Louisiana's spur of the Derby trail begins with the Lecomte Stakes (G3), a $200,000 race over the same mile and seventy yard trip. Both races allot the top four finishers points toward the big races in May: 10-4-2-1, respectively. Each is the first in a three-race series: the Derby preps continue with the Risen Star Stakes (G2) and the Lousiana Derby, and the Oaks preps continue with the Rachel Alexandra Stakes (G2) and the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2).
The forecast for New Orleans on Saturday calls for rain through the morning, and wind during the day. The wind may help dry the track somewhat, but if the forecast holds, it's unlikely the track will be truly fast by the time the dirt stakes roll around. Thus, it'll be a positive if a horse has off-track form or good slop breeding.
Lecomte Stakes preview jointly published at ThoroFan Handicapper's Corner.
Saturday, January 19 - Fair Grounds
Race 11: Silverbulletday Stakes, three-year-old fillies, one mile and seventy yards on the dirt, post time 5:20pm CST
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 (G3) and the Fair Grounds Oaks (G3). 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 (G2) on her path to Kentucky Oaks glory. I'm a Chatterbox, who won the Silverbulletday two years ago, went on to sweep the entire series of Oaks preps at the Fair Grounds, finish third in the Kentucky Oaks, and win the Grade 1 Cotillion at age three. 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.
Chicago-area owners Coffeepot Stables and longtime Arlington trainer Wayne Catalano combined to win the Silverbulletday Stakes two years ago with Farrell. This year they have the morning line favourite, in Golden Rod Stakes (G2) winner LIORA. LIORA is a Candy Ride half-sister to another recent graded stakes horse from the Catalano barn: Family Tree (Smart Strike) won both the Indiana Oaks (G2) and the Iowa Oaks (G3) in 2016 for owners Gary and Mary West.
LIORA is well bred for two turns on the dirt and ran to it. She stalked and pounced to break her maiden easily going first-time dirt, then went gate-to-wire in a sloppy Golden Rod at Churchill on November 24. If she wants to win the Silverbulletday she'll probably have to tap back into that tactical speed she showed in her maiden win, since COWGIRLS LIKE US will be sharp from the outside and FUN FINDER may be fastest of all from the rail. Perhaps LIORA wins anyway -- she can stalk the pace, she can handle an off track, and the streaky father and son-in-law pair of Catalano and jockey Channing Hill has been strong in recent months. But, she's no sure thing.
Up-and-coming GRANDARIA looks a logical spoiler. She did little on debut going two turns over yielding turf at Keeneland, but rain a month later at Churchill was a blessing in disguise. The race was washed to a sloppy main track, and GRANDARIA rallied to win in commanding fashion. She returned in December in a first-level allowance at Fair Grounds -- this time, facing horses who were originally pointed to the dirt. The Brendan Walsh trainee won again, settling near the rear of a field of eight and closing to win by daylight. Corey Lanerie had the call on her for the first time in that race, and returns today. Particularly interesting is that the pace didn't completely fall apart in either of those races GRANDARIA won. Here, she likely gets even more to run at, suggesting the daughter of Curlin can do even better.
Beyond those two, it was a close call between NEEDS SUPERVISION and MANDY BLUE. NEEDS SUPERVISION does have a strong allowance victory over a sloppy Churchill track. She remains in the barn of Jeremiah O'Dwyer after several familiar owners bought shares in her: Madaket Stables (a Sol Kumin interest), Gary Barber, and Wachtel Stables. A repeat of that last-out win makes her a threat, but the underside of her pedigree is all sprint. She may end up doing well -- but this seems one of the "if you missed the wedding, don't come to the funeral" situations. On the stretch to two turns, she's less exciting at a short price.
MANDY BLUE, on the other hand, appeals more. Though she comes into this off of a two-length victory in a turf route N1X, her maiden victory at Indiana Grand came sprinting on dirt. She hasn't tried the slop, but her pedigree shines for it: she is by Smart Strike out of Malvinia, a full sister to Malibu Moon who hit the board in her only off-track try. MANDY BLUE's running style should suit the race, as well; she settled not too far off the pace and rallied nicely in her one route try. Finally, the connections are strong. She is trained by Brad Cox, a 23% winner on the meet and a 28% winner with horses second off the lay, and she gets 21% Fair Grounds jockey Florent Geroux in the irons.
#2 GRANDARIA (9/2)
#4 LIORA (5/2)
#7 MANDY BLUE (9/2)
Longshot: We tried to get the longshot writer's attention, but they were staring at the Lecomte PPs already.
Race 12: Lecomte Stakes (G3), three-year-olds, one mile and seventy yards on the dirt, post time 5:49pm CST
This year marks the 75th running of the Lecomte Stakes, a race that has held Grade 3 designation since 2003, and been run at distances varying from a mile to a mile and an eighth. Lecomte, by Boston out of the mare Reel, is best known as the only horse to hand Lexington a defeat. On April 8, 1854, Lecomte beat Lexington in two straight four-mile heats, with his setting a new four-mile record of 7 minutes, 26 seconds. Lecomte is also a half-brother of another horse whose name lives on as the namesake of a three-year-old stakes race: his dam Reel also produced Prioress, by Sovereign. Racing from ages two through seven, Prioress was the first American-bred and American-owned horse to win in England, and still has a sophomore fillies' sprint stakes run in her honour at Saratoga.
Though no winner of the Lecomte has gone on to win the Kentucky Derby, 2013 hero Oxbow would go on to win the Preakness. Several other Lecomte victors have gone on to Classic placings: No Le Hace (1972) finished second in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, Linkage (1982) finished second in the Preakness, and Hard Spun (2007) finished second in the Kentucky Derby and third in the Preakness.
Eventual Preakness winner Oxbow makes a frontrunning score in the 2013 Lecomte Stakes.
The 2019 edition of the Lecomte drew an overflow field: 14, plus one also eligible entry. There are a few pace horses, but the sharpest -- MANNY WAH and TIGHT TEN -- are mired to the outside. A wire-to-wire score seems unlikely, but it looks like a good race for a better-drawn horse with some tactical speed to sit the trip and take over.
And, that's just what WAR OF WILL can do. The son of War Front started his career on the grass, becoming Grade 1 placed as a maiden, but finally got off the mark in a dirt maiden at Churchill Downs on November 24. He stalked, pounced, and won easily over the sloppy track that day; trainer Mark Casse and owner Gary Barber must be thrilled with the forecast this time. The race was a mile and a sixteenth, so he is proven at two turns. Tyler Gaffalione misses a day at Gulfstream to reunite with WAR OF WILL in the Lecomte, another good sign. Though he has been on the shelf since November 24, the work pattern is regular since mid-December, and Casse fires at 17% off of similar layoffs. Add to that Casse's strong start at Fair Grounds, and WAR OF WILL is a formidable horse for formidable connections.
PLUS QUE PARFAIT will have to overcome an outside gate, but otherwise, there is plenty to like about the son of Point of Entry. He blossomed in his two most recent races, his only tries going two turns on dirt: he broke his maiden third-out at Keeneland, nosing out another talented one in Harvey Wallbanger, and then fell just a neck shy of the more experienced Signalman in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2), his stakes debut. PLUS QUE PARFAIT has shown tactical versatility as well, winning from near the lead in his maiden score, but rallying from near the rear in the Kentucky Jockey Club. That gives jockey Julien Leparoux options on where to put him, useful when navigating that outside post.
Finally, TACKETT intrigues. Though he makes his first stakes try in the Lecomte, he does have the advantage of local form. The son of Limehouse finished third on debut at Laurel, sprinting on the dirt, and then stretched out to this mile and seventy yard trip at Fair Grounds for a maiden on November 24. He won on the front end -- and then returned to win a first-level allowance over the same course and distance from a stalking spot. The one question is the wet track, since he has only run over fast dirt, but the pedigree is there. (That holds especially true for dam Unostrike, by 19% mud stallion Macho Uno out of a mare who ran well over sloppy footing.) TACKETT's allowance win came with jockey Joe Bravo aboard; Bravo returns to the irons today. He has been smiling for a lot of win pictures with trainer Mike Stidham in recent times: they're 27% of the last two months with a positive ROI. If TACKETT can take the modest step forward he needs to run to the best of this company, they may be posing again.
#8 WAR OF WILL (6/1)
#12 PLUS QUE PARFAIT (9/2)
#3 TACKETT (6/1)
Longshot: #7 ROILAND (12/1) makes his first start since a credible albeit belated fifth in the Kentucky Jockey Club. He showed a pattern of being a bit slow at the start at age two, though the addition of blinkers may help him show a bit more early position. Trainer Tom Amoss is smart about when to add that headgear, as evidenced by his 23% win rate going first-time blinkers. Amoss is also strong with layoff horses, a 25% winner over the last three years with horses rested 45-90 days. Though ROILAND hasn't raced at Fair Grounds yet he has been working there since December, so he has had the chance to settle in. Finally, the wet track should serve him well: he is by superstar mud sire Successful Appeal, and improved well enough late in the Kentucky Jockey Club last time out to suggest he can handle the surface.
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