This week the Derby and 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 which has been extended to a mile and a sixteenth this year. 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 Louisiana Derby (G2), and the Oaks preps continue with the Rachel Alexandra Stakes (G2) and the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2).
Lecomte Stakes preview jointly published at ThoroFan Handicapper's Corner.
Saturday, January 18 - Fair Grounds
Race 12: Silverbulletday Stakes, three-year-old fillies, one mile and seventy yards on the dirt, post time 5:23pm 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.
This year's edition of the Silverbulletday drew a field of eight, among which FINITE looms large. She rides a three-race win streak into the Silverbulletday. Though she broke her maiden on a switch to the grass at Kentucky Downs in September, she has since fired off a pair of stakes wins on the Churchill dirt, in the Rags to Riches and the Golden Rod (G2). And, her two second-place finishes in maiden races at Saratoga suggest she can handle other dirt surfaces, as well. She has speed, but she proved in the Golden Rod that she is truly versatile: instead of setting or even pressing the pace, she stalked early, led in the lane, and kept on. Especially for that being her first race at a route, it was a strong effort and it showed a skill that should serve FINITE well, given that URSULA, HIS GLORY, PORTRAIT, and SHE CAN'T SING have also shown pace. There is no guarantee of a breakneck pace -- but no matter how it develops, Ricardo Santana has options with FINITE. All in all, FINITE will take some beating.
As for who has the best chance to beat her? Being on or near the lead has been generally good this Fair Grounds meet; especially without a pace collapse likely, a horse is not likely to want to be too far away. The two next most "formful" horses in this race, HIS GLORY and PORTRAIT, should both be in close range. Between them, HIS GLORY intrigues and PORTRAIT is one we'll try and stand against.
PORTRAIT is going to be well bet, with the team of Brad Cox and Florent Geroux behind her. She has been laid off since September, not a huge worry given Cox's strong layoff record. The biggest question for PORTRAIT is the distance. In her three races last year, her best outing came at one turn, and her pedigree has a lot of one-turn. PORTRAIT's dam could go either one turn or two, but her only other winner was a sprinter, PORTRAIT's second dam was a sprinter, and sire Tapizar's average winning distance is 6.6 furlongs. Perhaps she'll have more stamina at three than she did at two...or, perhaps, she'll find a cozy home at six or seven furlongs.
Whereas, HIS GLORY ran some solid two-turn races last year. On a contested pace for much of the Pocahontas (G2), she stayed on to run second -- a length and a quarter behind Lazy Daisy, but eight and a half clear of the aforementioned PORTRAIT. Her trainer Tom Amoss has gotten the Fair Grounds meet off to a sharp start, and is firing on all cylinders with jockey James Graham, who has ridden HIS GLORY in her last three starts. HIS GLORY won't get an easy lead like she did in her allowance victory two back -- but as she proved in the Pocahontas, she won't need one in order to turn in a good effort, and that makes her quite appealing as long as the track turns up fast. (If it turns up sloppy, proceed with caution; both of HIS GLORY's off-track efforts have been below-par.)
URSULA comes into the Silverbulletday with significant upside. Yes, she was beaten by eleven lengths last out in the Letellier -- but that was behind the extremely promising Taraz, and she ran three and three quarters lengths clear of the third-lace horse. She showed in both that start and her maiden win that she has tactical speed, and she got some experience over a sloppy track in the Letellier, if it comes to that. And, URSULA intrigues trying two turns for the first time. She is by Tapit, who needs no introduction as a top-quality route sire, out of the Anabaa mare Debonnaire. Though Debonnaire never raced longer than a mile, her progeny (who include top-class Australian runner Hartnell) have won at distances as long as a mile and a half. Her female family is mostly turf, of course -- but with URSULA's form on the dirt so far, the stamina gives her plenty of appeal.
#6 FINITE (6/5)
#4 HIS GLORY (5/1)
#3 URSULA (12/1)
Longshot: #5 MAGA SUITE (20/1) is the longest shot on the morning line, but has some intriguing upside at such a price. She is lightly-raced, with just three starts underneath her. She broke her maiden going first-time turf, so she still has to prove herself on the dirt. Maybe she'll handle it; maybe she won't handle it well enough; she showed enough improvement from debut to second-time out to suggest there's more upside. More than anything, though, the distance is the selling point with MAGA SUITE. She is by Palace Malice out of the Ghostzapper mare Guest House. If you follow the three-year-old preps in Louisiana, that dam's name may sound familiar -- Guest House also produced 2017 Lecomte Stakes winner Guest Suite, whose five wins have all come in dirt routes. He is a perfect two-for-two in the mud, and Palace Malice has been a solid mud influence as well, so this filly can move up on an off track. Maga Suite is also half to Surprise Again (Noble Mission), whose only win came at two turns on the grass, giving some more precedent for stamina. Of course, whether Maga Suite truly wants dirt is what you're rolling the dice on -- but as the longest shot on the board, you're getting a horse who can sit close enough to the pace and who is bred to stretch out.
Race 13: Lecomte Stakes (G3), three-year-olds, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 5:55pm CST
The Lecomte Stakes, the first in the series of Kentucky Derby prep races at Fair Grounds, will be run for the 76th time this year. A Grade 3 since 2003, the race has been run at distances from a mile to a mile and an eighth; it currently covers a mile and a sixteenth. Its namesake Lecomte, by Boston out of the mare Reel, is best remembered as the only horse to defeat the mighty Lexington. On April 8, 1854, Lecomte beat Lexington in two straight four-mile heats, and set a new four-mile record of 7 minutes, 26 seconds. Lecomte is not the only horse out of his dam Reel who is still remembered with a present-day stakes: such an honor also belongs to his half-sister 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 three-year-old fillies' sprint run in her honour at Saratoga.
Though no winner of the Lecomte has gone on to win the Kentucky Derby, two of its recent winners have gone on to win the Preakness Stakes: Oxbow (2013) and War of Will (2019). 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.
As so often happens with early-season three-year-old preps, the field for the Lecomte drew a blend of proven stakes horses and runners who are stepping up from lower-profile spots to the big time. Among the proven, SCABBARD comes in as the class of the group. Though he has yet to win in stakes company, he has yet to run a poor race in stakes company, either. He won on debut in a sprint at Churchill Downs last June and has emerged as a late-running sort who will reliably mount a run. He rallied for second in the Saratoga Special (G2), second in the Iroquois, (G3), and then ran fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). SCABBARD will be pleased to see all the speed drawn into the race: SYCAMORE RUN, SHASHASHAKEMEUP, and PERFECT STAR are likely to go, and it’s hard to imagine MR. MONOMOY, BANGO, or LYNN'S MAP too far off the pace, either. So, assuming there isn’t some rampant speed bias on Lecomte day, SCABBARD stands to get the right trip. But, as the likely favorite, even lukewarm as that favoritism may be, it still seems prudent to look beyond SCABBARD’s class and wonder whether there are any logical alternatives, since he hasn’t gotten all the way there since a maiden race fairly early in the juvenile season.
Trainer Steve Asmussen mounts a three-pronged attack with EXCESSION, SILVER STATE, and HALO AGAIN. EXCESSION comes out of the same first-level allowance race as LYNN'S MAP and MR. MONOMOY, having crossed the wire third behind that pair. He can pass horses and he can get the trip, though with six starts underneath him? He has talent but may not have quite as much upside as some other runners have. In short, he is the least intriguing card in Asmussen’s hand.
Lightly-raced SILVER STATE will probably be the shortest price of the Asmussen bunch, but is a lightly-raced colt with plenty of upside. He dead-heated for the win debut in a six-and-a-half-furlong maiden special weight at Churchill, almost ten lengths clear of the third-place horse: BANGO, who he faces again in this. The horse with whom he dead heated, Relentless Dancer, came back to dismantle the field in a Louisiana-bred stakes. SILVER STATE then handled the stretch to a mile with aplomb, tracking a couple of lengths off the pace in a first-level allowance over that same course and missing in a head-bobber. Both races came back suitably fast. He has the pedigree to handle the step up to two turns, being by Hard Spun out of an Empire Maker mare who has produced some two-turn form among her foals. And, with all the speed in the race, SILVER STATE should be able to sit a good trip far enough off the speed not to get burned up, but not so far back that he has too much to do.
But, in a field of fourteen fast-developing three-year-olds? If you find the right price horse with whom to take a shot, take that shot. This maxim brings us to the longest-priced of the Asmussen trio on the morning line, HALO AGAIN. He is the only one in the Lecomte field cutting back in trip; in his most recent start, on November 23, he won the nine-furlong Coronation Futurity by a head. This is a tougher race, of course: he beat Canadian-breds on Tapeta in the Coronation Futurity, and this is an open stakes on dirt. But, his maiden win came in a Churchill maiden special on the dirt, so this won’t be his first foray on dirt or against well-meant open horses. He stands to get a better setup than in the Coronation Futurity, too. That day, he tracked an uncontested leader while sitting inside a horse who was rank early, got shuffled back through the turn, and came back again up the fence to win. In the Lecomte, there should be a sharper pace for him to reel in, and even though this is a bigger field it’s a positive that HALO AGAIN knows how to get through traffic. He will have to take a step forward, but he has a solid foundation and stands to be a great price.
#7 HALO AGAIN (15/1)
#9 SILVER STATE (5/1)
#4 SCABBARD (7/2)
Longshot: There are a couple of credible closers who deserve a mention. ENFORCEABLE comes out of the Kentucky Jockey Club, and looks to have found his home at two turns on the dirt. But, he stands to be a shorter price than some others, and appeals more underneath than on top. With that, what about the one who stands to be a longer price, and actually beat ENFORCEABLE that day at Churchill? #1 FINNICK THE FIERCE (15/1) took a huge step forward when he ran second behind Silver Prospector in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2), and may have to prove that his move forward meant he was actually improving, and wasn’t a question of him being some kind of a slop monster. (As of Thursday afternoon, the chances for rain at Fair Grounds on Saturday are not zero, but are no sure thing, either.) But, there’s also the chance that at least part of what moved FINNICK THE FIERCE forward was the fact that he was stretching out to a route for the first time. It’s not clear that his pedigree will take him much longer than a mile and a sixteenth – but we’re not trying to handicap the Derby, we’re trying the handicap the Lecomte, and the Lecomte is a mile and a sixteenth. FINNICK THE FIERCE should get a sharp pace to rally into and can sweeten the exotics once again.
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