Winter marches on. With it, the three-year-old runners march toward the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks. Picks and Ponderings will be here to navigate you along the Derby trail and the Oaks trail.
This Saturday, those trails both make their first pass through the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Saturday’s stakes-laden card features the LeComte Stakes (GIII) for open three-year-olds, as well as the listed Silverbulletday Stakes for sophomore fillies.
Picks and Ponderings also previews the Smarty Jones Stakes, set for Monday, January 18 at Oaklawn.
Edited on January 16th to reflect race-day scratches.
Fair Grounds: Saturday, January 16
Race 9: Silverbulletday Stakes, three-year-old fillies, one mile and seventy yards on the dirt, post time 4:23pm 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 (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. Last year’s Silverbulletday Stakes winner, I’m a Chatterbox, went on to sweep the entires series of Oaks preps at the Fair Grounds, finish third in the Kentucky Oaks, and win the Grade I Cotillion. I’m a Chatterbox is one of the finalists for Eclipse Champion Three-Year-Old filly — an award that will be conferred the same evening as this year’s Silverbulletday. 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.
I’m a Chatterbox toys with the field in the 2015 Silverbulletday Stakes.
This year’s renewal of the Silverbulletday Stakes offers a $150,000 purse, an increase of $25,000 from last year. It drew a field of eight runners who will vie for a share of that purse as well as Road to the Kentucky Oaks points (10-4-2-1) for the top four finishers.
After a close call at Arlington this summer, LOVABLE LYSS has made herself known at the Fair Grounds this meet. She splashed home easily at second asking — her first try on any sort of dirt, and her first start off a layoff of almost three months. She returned in an allowance last month, her first try over fast dirt and her first at two turns. She galloped to the front, led the field on a merry chase, and once again won geared down. LOVABLE LYSS returns to that same track and distance here. Though she may get more on the front end than she did in that last-out allowance victory, she has shown an ability to sit off if the likes of MIDNIGHT ON OCONEE or BANNER WAVING try to gun it. She has also shown an ability to rally from farther back. In her debut, going just five furlongs on the Arlington poly, LOVABLE LYSS rallied from Rolling Meadows and missed catching winner Carita by just a head. Finally, the humans appeal. Francisco Torres, who rode LOVABLE LYSS for both of her Fair Grounds wins, returns to the irons for 30% conditioner Hugh Robertson. With speed, versatility, a proven affinity for the course, and humans you can trust, LOVABLE LYSS could well make her stakes debut a winning one. She could also do so at a decent price, given the presence of STAGEPLAY.
Likely favourite STAGEPLAY was this fall’s buzz filly in Kentucky. She rallied from midpack and romped on debut at Keeneland in October, and then stretched out to win the one-mile Rags to Riches Stakes at Churchill Downs the next month. Last out, in the Golden Rod (GII), she tried two turns for the first time. She chased Carina Mia around in the slop the entire way, made a move, but could not quite get by. Here, she stands to get a bit more to chase, and also likely a faster track. She has a pair of Fair Grounds workouts, suggesting she has been pointed here; her January 3 drill was a five-furlong bullet, fastest of 85 that day. STAGEPLAY has been consistently fast, with a Brisnet speed figure of 91 in all three of her starts. She also gets a rider change to Florent Geroux: 28% on the meet, and 29% over the last two months with trainer Steve Asmussen.
The top two stand tall over the rest of the field. However, if one looks most likely to break out and spoil the party, that filly is ANNABELLE. ANNABELLE was well-beaten on debut at Churchill, finishing sixth behind STAGEPLAY that day. However, she stretched to a mile at Churchill for her next outing, and gutted out a victory at a flat mile. She notched up to allowance-optional company for her next start, going the same one-turn mile at Churchill, and again got her picture taken. That day ANNABELLE stalked the pace, kicked on well, and cleared to win by a length and a half. She put up a strong late pace from relatively close to the early fractions that day, and a stalk-and-pounce style could likely be what gets the job done in the Silverbulletday. Finally, her humans have been money. Trainer Brad Cox has been winning at a 29% clip this Fair Grounds meet. Over the last two months, Cox and ANNABELLE’s rider Shaun Bridgmohan have won four of their ten starts together (+$1.48 ROI), with seven of ten on the board.
#4 LOVABLE LYSS (4/1)
#8 STAGEPLAY (8/5)
#3 ANNABELLE (8/1)
Longshot: #5 MORE THAN MOST (6/1) is one of two entries from trainer Bret Calhoun, and stands to be a longer price than Delta Princess (GIII) winner JET BLACK MAGIC. MORE THAN MOST comes in off an open-lengths win in the La Senorita Stakes at Retama Park, going a mile on the grass. That was her first start at two turns, and her best race to date. Even so, she has dirt form as well. Two starts back, this Texas-bred broke her maiden going a one-turn mile at Churchill. There, she was close to a relatively hot pace, made an early move, and widened to win by four and a half lengths. She has not raced since October 3, but Calhoun is a 20% winner with runners laid off three months or longer, and MORE THAN MOST has a sharp worktab at Fair Grounds leading into this spot. She will need to take a step forward to win here, but if she has matured over her three months off, she could make an impact at a long price. — NN
Race 11: LeComte Stakes (GIII), three-year-olds, one mile and seventy yards on the dirt, post time 5:21pm CST
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-second 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.
Oxbow pours it on in the lane in the 2013 LeComte Stakes.
It is worth noting that at publish time, Daily Racing Form’s M. Hersh reported that Noble Thought will scratch and Tom’s Ready will draw in from the also eligible list. What his scratch does not do is eliminate the front end gas in this race, as stretchouts and speed are peppered from inside to outside.
DESTIN went on the Derby Trail immediately. Such is life when you’re a Pletcher trainee who wins a first-level allowance going a mile at Gulfstream. Don’t be fooled by the slow opening quarter there – instead look at him stalking off an honest :47 4/5 half. With stalking off a :47 4/5 and chasing a :46 2/5 all point to him as a plodder. (There’s a great race in June for this kind.) As the full brother to Creative Cause he”ll have the expectation of making it as far as his brother did. As a one-speed type he could get the lead no one wants or be rallying should all the stretchouts go to the front and create a traffic jam. Julien Leparoux has the call. Typically, Tom Amoss trainees further down the Kentucky Trail became roadside casualties. However, the road is early and the distances are still short and he did do good things with Mylute. MO TOM was third in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club on Thanksgiving Weekend to Airoforce. Unlike others he’s handled the stretchout question as he won going a single turn mile on Churchill’s opening day in alisted stakes. In the money all four times he’s faced the starter and Grade Two placed, he stands as the field’s class but could need a race off the six week absence. This mile category distance is probably his limit on distance, but his future is now. The 10/1 morning line quote on DOLPHUS, before scratches would not be shown on “Great Moments in Morning Line Making”. After scratches, this quote looks to even have obtained corporate sponsorship from Stay-Puff. The breeding and the connections would push his price down, as there’s a 23% winning jockey/trainer team in the last two months. Up close but not on the lead last out in a first-level allowance, DOLPHUS showed a rating gear in that educational race. It’s third start out so there may still be some upside. A winner on debut, he did weaken in the lane but perhaps a cleaner break negates it.
#13 DESTIN (6/1)
#7 MO TOM (7/2)
#5 DOLPHUS (10/1)
Longshot: If you believe there will be a pace meltdown, then taking fast-closing MO TOM, should he duplicate his Stars of Tomorrow 2 effort, makes some sense. But #4 Z ROYAL (15/1) has a higher price on the morning line, humans who have danced this dance before (trainer D. Wayne Lukas and rider Victor Espinoza are multiple Derby-winners in their categories), and better breeding with the Eskendraya-Giant’s Causeway sire line that should do well at beyond eight furlongs. Z ROYAL may be a stretchout, but his last start was at a one-turn mile where he sat and closed off a quick pace. Six and a half was likely too short for him in career start one. Here in start three, he has the room to progress – another trump card in his favor. The fact he’s also going two turns may help him as opposed to other stretchouts. Odds may tumble because of the humans (he’s a Zayat production and you may recall their last effort), but he’s worth considering should the 15/1 tote quote hold. — PM
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