Saturday at Fair Grounds, the highest-stakes round of Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks preps begin. The Louisiana spurs of the three-year-old trails draw to a close with the Fair Grounds Oaks and the Louisiana Derby: 100-point races for the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby, respectively. Even the 40 points afforded the second-place finishers have typically been enough to get them into the starting gate in Louisville, so the stakes are high.
This week, we tackle both three-year-old stakes Saturday at Fair Grounds.
Saturday, March 23 – Fair Grounds
Race 12: Fair Grounds Oaks (G2), three-year-old fillies, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 4:44pm CST
This year marks the 52nd 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).
Untapable dances home an easy winner of the 2014 Fair Grounds Oaks (G2).
Once again, this year, the Fair Grounds Oaks offers a purse of $400,000, and offers 100-40-20-10 Road to the Kentucky Oaks points to its top four finishers.
Trainer Tom Amoss won this race at a price last year with Chocolate Martini; this year, he shows up with the likely favourite. The biggest question is which SERENGETI EMPRESS appears. Like Longfellow’s little girl with the little curl? When she is good, she is very good indeed…but there’s no in-between with her. She either romps or finishes up the track. The relative inside draw suits her well, as does the fact that she should be the speed of the speed. She may be able to rate — after all, she sat just off the pace and took over in her maiden win last summer — but in stakes company, her good races have come on the lead and her poor races have come when she hasn’t been able to strike the front. Though SPEEDETTE, CRESCENTCITYPRETTY, and LIORA all have some early gas, they all have something to find to outjump SERENGETI EMPRESS. That might mean checkmate.
LIORA chased SERENGETI EMPRESS home to run second in the Rachel Alexandra (G2) last month. Even though she has to take a marked step forward from that to win — that, or have SERENGETI EMPRESS no-show — LIORA showed a new dimension in that race. Before the Rachel Alexandra, most of her better races have come on or near the lead. In that race, she wasn’t as close to SERENGETI EMPRESS through the early stages as she had been to the pace in her better races, and yet she remained interested and kept chasing all the way to the wire. It suggests she is maturing. Blinkers-on is the question — will those just help keep her even more focused, or do Wayne Catalano and Channing Hill actually plan to try and take it to SERENGETI EMPRESS early? This space hopes for the latter, as a duel may not leave much in the tank late. But, if she can remain tactical with the blinkers, she can acquit herself well.
ERES TU could well clunk on for another share underneath, but as someone with a little more upside on the win end, let’s zoom in on SWEET DIANE. She was well beaten by Point of Honor when last seen in the Suncoast at Tampa last month, but has since been able to settle in at Fair Grounds in trainer Mike Stidham’s division there. That was her first race in two months; she should be fitter here, and earlier races suggest she has more to find. SWEET DIANE has shown tactical speed in her route starts, and her pedigree should suit; she is by Will Take Charge out of a Tiznow mare who was stakes-placed at a mile and an eighth. Finally, the switch to rider Joe Bravo in the irons also appeals; Bravo has been a 19% rider in New Orleans this meet, including some success for Stidham.
#2 SERENGETI EMPRESS (6/5)
#8 LIORA (5/1)
#4 SWEET DIANE (8/1)
Longshot: #7 SLEWGOODTOBETRUE (8/1) ships out from California for trainer Peter Eurton, and tries stakes company for the first time. Her form since stretching out to two turns has been good: after two underneath finishes in sprints, she won when stretched to a mile against maidens at Santa Anita in January, the followed that up with a first-level allowance win there at a mile and a sixteenth in February. Though that N1X score came in the slop, she caught a fast track in the maiden win, allaying any sort of fear that SLEWGOODTOBETRUE is some kind of slop monster. She is versatile enough to stalk close to the pace or sit a few lengths off. And, she engages the services of Florent Geroux, a 22% rider over the local track. All this suggests she can take the needed step forward at an honest price.
Race 13: Louisiana Derby (G2), three-year-olds, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 5:13pm CST
The Louisiana Derby, which will be run for the 106th 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. In addition, three other horses who contested the Louisiana Derby eventually won the Belmont: Creme Fraiche (2nd, 1985), Drosselmeyer (3rd, 2010), and Palace Malice (7th, 2013).
Its most successful winner in recent times has been Gun Runner (2016). Even though he did not win any of the Triple Crown races, a victory in the Clark (G1) made him a Grade 1 winner before the year was out, a win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) last year crowned a Horse of the Year campaign, and he finished his career with a victory in the 2018 Pegasus World Cup (G1).
Gun Runner makes easy work of the 2016 Louisiana Derby.
This year the Louisiana Derby again offers a purse of $1,000,000, as well as Road to the Kentucky Derby points (100-40-20-10) to its top four finishers.
Understanding most of this year’s Kentucky Derby trail has been about as frustrating as trying to carry a gallon of milk without a bottle. However, there has been one solid pillar of consistency during this otherwise confusing time: WAR OF WILL.
He won the Lecomte (G3) easily. He sneered at his parking lot post draw in the Risen Star (G2). Now, he looks primed to complete the sweep in New Orleans. Even if there were going to be a hot pace, WAR OF WILL has shown the ability to adapt. But, with BANKIT having seemingly lost the early speed he showed earlier in his career (and with him mired outside, anyway…), LEMNISCATE may be left to set reasonable fractions. WAR OF WILL should sit a good trip in close range of that pace, and have plenty left at the end. Sure, he hasn’t gone a mile and an eighth yet — but everyone has to answer that question, and the fact that WAR OF WILL is half to Tacticus (a horse who could run all day, and half of tomorrow if you let him) suggests nine furlongs shouldn’t be a problem. All this adds up to WAR OF WILL looking like the goods once again.
Something tells me the 20/1 morning line on LIMONITE is optimistic. That’s one reason he wasn’t left for the longshot writer — the other reason, of course, is that he has a world of upside. This Steve Asmussen trainee had a thorny trip in the Risen Star (G2), so there’s a chance new rider Jose Ortiz will be able to get more out of him if he keeps him in the clear. That was also LIMONITE’s first start since the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) in November, and Asmussen fires at a respectable 17% with horses second off the layoff. The stretch out to a mile and an eighth should suit LIMONITE beautifully: he is by Lemon Drop Kid, a sire whose progeny love nine furlongs, out of a mare who is a Brazilian Group 1 winner at distances as long as a mile and a half. Finally, even though he has settled well back in his last two races, his three-back allowance outing at Churchill suggests he may not have to drop back to the clouds after all. He has options, he has stamina, and he looms the most likely one to shoulder the perhaps impossible burden of toppling WAR OF WILL.
COUNTRY HOUSE is a bundle of raw talent who still needs to get his head together. Two starts back, in a maiden race at Gulfstream, he blew the start, had a snail’s pace to chase, and still won easily. Last time, in the Risen Star (G2), he came away slowly again, ran erratically late, and still ran second behind WAR OF WILL. The pedigree doesn’t throw up red flags for a mile and an eighth, and the race two back suggests COUNTRY HOUSE doesn’t need an absolute collapse to be a threat in the lane. The biggest question: will he be his own worst enemy once again?
#6 WAR OF WILL (6/5)
#3 LIMONITE (20/1)
#8 COUNTRY HOUSE (9/2)
Longshot: #2 LEMNISCATE (15/1) faces winners for the first time; he woke up March 3, the first time he tried two turns. That came on the lawn, but his dirt sprint form earlier in the Gulfstream meet shows a clear ability to handle the main track, too. It also shows true sprint speed — speed he proved he could carry two turns last time. LEMNISCATE will have to prove he can stick around with a good horse (WAR OF WILL) breathing down his neck, and there’s some chance that outside-drawn BANKIT or SPINOFF may try to make things hot early. But, with speed generally good in routes at Fair Grounds and with the nice ground-saving post, LEMNISCATE can hold his own at a nice price.
You can take “Picks & Ponderings” with you anytime, anywhere. You can get Twitter updates @picksponderings for on-scene reports from Hawthorne Race Course. And you can get “Picks and Ponderings” in your e-mail by typing your email address in the box and clicking “Create Subscription.” It’s a FREE service, and you’ll never get any unwanted spam.