This week, we follow the Derby Trail and the Oaks Trail to the Big Easy.
Things got underway with a pair of ten-point preps last month, the LeComte (GIII) and the Silverbulletday. They up the ante this time around with the Risen Star for Derby-bound types, and the Rachel Alexandra for the fillies. Not only are both Grade II affairs, but they are the first of the fifty-point prep races anywhere in the country. Both are a mile and a sixteenth, and both should yield some clues about which runners will be able to handle longer distances through the spring. Each is also the second race in a three-part prep season at Fair Grounds. Both series conclude on March 26, with the Louisiana Derby (GII) for open sophomores, and the Fair Grounds Oaks (GII) for fillies.
All races are scheduled for Saturday, February 20 at Fair Grounds Race Course. Authors of each race preview are denoted at the end: PM for Paul Mazur, NN for Nicolle Neulist.
Race 9: Twinspires.com Rachel Alexandra Stakes (GII), three-year-old fillies, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 4:23pm CST
First run in 1982 as the Davona Dale Stakes, the race was renamed for Silverbulletday in 2001, then named for Rachel Alexandra in 2011. It was run at a mile and forty yards in its first three editions, and then stretched to its current mile and a sixteenth distance. It has been a Grade III since 1999. Rachel Alexandra never won the race named in her honour. But, she did win the Fair Grounds Oaks (GII) in 2009 on her way to a dominant 20 1/4 length win in the Kentucky Oaks (GI) , and then beat males in the Preakness (GI), Haskell (GI), and Woodward (GI) later that year. Over its history, the Rachel Alexandra has been a productive source of Kentucky Oaks winners. Six winners of this race have taken home the blanket of lilies: Tiffany Lass (1986), Blushing K. D. (1997), Silverbulletday (1999), Summerly (2005), Believe You Can (2012), and Untapable (2014). Another of the most notable winners of this race fell a length and a quarter short in the Kentucky Oaks. Take Charge Lady (2002) won eight graded stakes, including the 2003 Arlington Matron. As a producer, she already has two champions on her direct female line: she is the dam of Will Take Charge (2013 Champion Three Year Old Male), and the second dam of Take Charge Brandi (2014 Champion Two Year Old Filly, via her daughter Charming).
Untapable begins her three-year-old campaign with a victory in the 2014 Rachel Alexandra Stakes.
The Rachel Alexandra Stakes is the first race to offer 50 points to its winner, as well as 20, 10, and 5 points to the next three placings. As such, whoever wins this race virtually assures herself a spot in the starting gate on Oaks day should her connections opt to go, and the second-place finisher has likely punched her ticket as well. In addition, the race offers a $200,000 purse — up $25,000 from last year’s lucre. This year’s edition drew a fiield of nine to contest for those spoils.
This space tries as hard as it can to find alternatives to chalk, given how much one must demand of a runner to take a short price. This space also gives enhanced scrutiny to sons and daughters of Curlin, as it would be unfair for its well-documented love of that sire to translate into foolhardy selections. Given all of this, this space searched high and low for a way to beat 7/5 morning line favourite STAGEPLAY in the Rachel Alexandra.
This space failed to find one.
You know what you’re getting with STAGEPLAY, as much as one can know what they are getting with a three-year-old. In four starts she has won three times, including a comfortable Silverbulletday stakes victory at two turns over this same course. On figures, she has put up a 91 BRIS in all four of her starts — in other words, dependably putting up speed figures that are (or would be) one-off tops for the rest of the field. The only time she has lost was in the Golden Rod — behind a very good horse in Carina Mia. There is no Carina Mia in this field. Also, Carina Mia had things her way on the front in the early stages of this race. Such a setup is not likely here. Stretch-out type FINLEY’SLUCKYCHARM likely sets the pace, but MIDNIGHT ON OCONEE (the pacesetter from the Silverbulletday) will not let her off too easily, and LOVABLE LYSS may show speed as well. STAGEPLAY can run well from a stalking or midpack spot, and 28% Fair Grounds rider Florent Geroux will be smart enough to get STAGEPLAY where she needs to be. STAGEPLAY looks set to take another step down the Oaks trail this Saturday.
Most intriguing among the rest is STAGEPLAY’s stablemate from the Steve Asmussen barn, ROYAL OBSESSION. This filly tries stakes company for the first time, but has won both of her previous starts. That includes a main-track mile win at the Fair Grounds last out, when she rallied sharply into a soft pace to nail LEMON DROP BELLE. ROYAL OBSESSION should have no trouble with the extra sixteenth of a mile off of that last race, either. She is by Tapit, out of a Tiznow half-sister to GI-winning turf router Magnificent Song. Though she loses rider Florent Geroux to STAGEPLAY, she is in capable hands with rider John Velazquez, a winner a quarter of the time in route races. ROYAL OBSESSION will have to take a step up to beat this company, but she is lightly raced enough to have that upside, and the late zip she showed last out should serve her well whether FINLEY’SLUCKYCHARM gets only a little early pressure, or a lot.
It can be hard to count out a Larry Jones filly this time of year, particularly at the Fair Grounds. He has an honest one in MIDNIGHT ON OCONEE. She set the early fractions in the Silverbulletday, and though she was no match for STAGEPLAY, she kept fighting, and stayed on to finish a clear second. Her maiden and allowance wins suggest that she does not truly need the lead — good indications to have, with FINLEY’SLUCKYCHARM in the field. Though winning may be a tall order for MIDNIGHT IN OCONEE, this filly has shown enough fight — and enough affinity for the Fair Grounds oval — that she should be around for a share come the wire.
Two who deserve a brief mention are FOREVER DARLING and LOVABLE LYSS. Forever Darling did win the Santa Ynez nicely, and her pedigree suggests trying two turns again should be worth a shot. However, she will be a fairly short price off that last effort, and trainer Richard Baltas’s dull record with shippers makes her hard to take in this attempt to dodge Songbird. LOVABLE LYSS was dazzling in her first two tries over the Fair Grounds course, but finished fourth with no apparent excuse last out. She entered the Martha Washington, but scratched and entered here instead. If she runs back to her dazzling efforts earlier in the meet, she contends. This space will not dissuade anyone from taking a flyer if she drifts to boxcar odds, but that last out was enough of a red flag to make this space (which was once so bullish on her) take a pass.
#8 STAGEPLAY (7/5)
#9 ROYAL OBSESSION (8/1)
#6 MIDNIGHT ON OCONEE (5/1)
Longshot: #2 FINLEY’SLUCKYCHARM (12/1) stands to be the speed of the speed, as she has shown sharp early pace, and is stretching out to two turns for the first time. Should MIDNIGHT ON OCONEE be a bit too far back early, and LOVABLE LYSS try her closing style instead of her speedier form, she could get the breather she needs early. That said, she does not need the lead; she stalked and pounced in her debut win, and Robby Albarado returns to the irons from that effort. The breeding should be fine for the distance, as well; this daughter of Twirling Candy has only had one other half-sibling to run, and he was a winner at two turns. Trainer Dallas Stewart and owner Charles Fipke have seen some success with the Fair Grounds arm of the Oaks trail in the last few years (see Forever Unbridled and Unbridled Forever), and may have another live one with FINLEY’SLUCKYCHARM. — NN
Race 11: Veterans Ford Risen Star Stakes (GII), three-year-olds, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 5:21pm CST
This portion of the piece is jointly submitted for Thorofan’s Handicapper’s Corner.
The feature of the Fair Grounds card for February 20th is the $400,000 G2 Risen Star Stakes. A 50-20-10-5 dispersal of Kentucky Derby points is at stake, meaning that (based on past trends) the top two finishers have spots in the Kentucky Derby gate should they want them. The race honors Risen Star, a son of Secretariat out of Ribbon mare His Majesty that won the Louisiana Derby, Lexington, Preakness, and Belmont in his sophomore campaign in 1988. His Belmont saw him win in 2:26 2/5, a tick faster than the most recent Triple Crown winner – American Pharoah. Perhaps time may only matter in jail (you never know if the surface was a speedway), but Risen Star’s work from New Orleans to New York made him that year’s champion three-year-old. The stakes that bears his name started as the Louisiana Derby Trial in 1973, and made the name change to Risen Star in 1989. The final local prep to the Louisiana Derby, it has yet to yield a Kentucky Derby winner but has produced two Preakness winners: Master Derby (1975) and Risen Star (1988). Veterans Ford, a New Orleans-based car dealer, is sponsoring this year’s Risen Star.
Risen Star, this race’s namesake, demolishes the field in the 1988 Belmont Stakes.
A lot of handicappers talk about flattering races. That the performance of horse X flatters race Y, that if so-and-so does well, the race looks better. It goes the other way too, and the key race (or anti-key race) if one can spot it before the others can be a fruitful angle. A lot of this talk emerged when Destin, who was fourth in the G3 Lecomte behind MO TOM, TOM’s READY,and UNCLE WALTER, won the Davis in a snappy clock time. So Destin supposedly flattered the LeComte and by this reasoning the 1-2-3 of the LeComte are going to prevail yet again. To this observer, flattery will get you nowhere. The argument glosses over the idea that these are maturing horses who grow in spurts. It also glosses over that the 1-2-3 finishers had great pedigrees for a mile and seventy, but whose distance limitations grow as the races extend. With the familiar foes having questions, the new shooters start to appeal. But the highest profile on them is AIROFORCE, who splashed to a G2 triumph on Thanksgiving weekend in the Kentucky Jockey Club. But can he transfer his work to dry dirt? He has every chance based on breeding but at 5/2 morning line presents a price that doesn’t inspire.
While the field of fourteen guarantees a pace that’s honest, perhaps this is the time to take an off-the-pace type. In a field where the 1-2-3 of the local prior prep may find the distance wanting, perhaps this is the time to take a new shooter. GUN RUNNER appeals more, as he was fourth in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club and set the pace that AIROFORCE rallied into. The flammable Florent Geroux has the assigned mount for Steve Asmussen. GUN RUNNER, two back, when the pace was more moderate ran evenly and made a sustained rally, finishing in front of a then-unknown Rafting. GUN RUNNER could be keen first off the layoff and repeat his KJC where he does too much early. But the better tactic is to try to make one rally, pull back, and let someone like BISTRAYA or IT’S ALL RELEVANT do the dirty work. Whatever the case, perhaps GUN RUNNER can move forward and surprise. The big question in this race is if AIROFORCE can extend his turf and sloppy dirt form to a fast, dry track. If he can he’ll be intriguing to follow on the Kentucky Derby trail. His work on grass is fine enough, with a win in the G3 Bourbon and a neck defeat in the G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf speaking for that. There should be enough pace to help AIROFORCE, and his breeding indicates dry dirt isn’t an issue. The big question remains, but asking big questions at small prices isn’t a great idea and while he could win he ‘s defensively used in this space. Everyone’s favorite race to flatter, the LeComte, sees the third place finisher TOM’S READY get a mention here. Even though he’s finished behind stablemate MO TOM three times already, perhaps he’ll get better as the distances increase. He’s better bred for a mile and a sixteenth on paper than his stablemate, but perhaps (like in the LeComte) the future is now for MO TOM. Three seconds in the last four starts might point to a stuck in neutral type, or someone who needs the clearest trip from the outside stall and has had obstacles along the way. He deserves a chance at the longer distance.
#6 GUN RUNNER (6/1)
#10 AIROFORCE (5/2)
#8 TOM’S READY (8/1)
Longshot: This race is sponsored by a car dealer. What if the owner of a car dealership won the race? That’s what owner Frank Mancari is, and the locals who follow along at Picks & Ponderings will note his ads plastered over the Hawthorne feed for his dealership in Oak Lawn about six miles south of Hawthorne. Mancari is also a horse owner – having owned mutiple G3 winning turf marathoner Free Fighter back in the day. He’s here with #13 CANDY MY BOY (15/1), who has gotten no respect at the windows (which is good) and a lemon of a post in thirteen (which is not so good). The Roger Brueggemann trainee went gate to wire two back to graduate in his first start around two turns and then pulled the same coast-to-coast manuever to clear the first-level allowance condition. While he’s gotten slower paces and things his way, he showed he doesn’t need the lead as three back at Churchill (while still a maiden), he closed off quicker splits to get on the podium. Shaun Bridgmohan may have to work out a trip from the outside post for CANDY MY BOY. But in a race where the favorites aren’t locks, a price play could be the way to go. – PM
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