By Ed McNamara
The only horses who won the Louisiana Derby and the Kentucky Derby were Black Gold (1924) and Grindstone (1996). That doesn’t mean the Fair Grounds’ three Derby preps — the Lecomte, Risen Star and Louisiana Derby — aren’t places to look for classics contenders.
Two years ago, Kentucky Derby winner (via racing’s most famous DQ) Country House and Preakness hero War of Will ran in New Orleans, where winter racing has improved dramatically in recent years. Swiss Skydiver competed there last year before she pulled off the upset in the Preakness. In 2016, Gun Runner took the Louisiana Derby the year before earning Horse of the Year honors.
War of Will won the Risen Star and the Lecomte, so it’s worth paying attention to what happens Saturday in the Lecomte. The 1 1/16-mile Grade 3 offers 17 Kentucky Derby qualifying points (10-4-2-1) and tops a 13-race card that includes six stakes. The Lecomte is the finale in a challenging but hopefully not inscrutable late pick 4. Let’s see if I can provide some potentially lucrative advice.
Last year’s Louisiana Derby winner, the speedy Wells Bayou (8), has been training impressively since November for his return off an 8 1/2-month layoff. He was sidelined by a bone bruise following his fifth-place dud in the Arkansas Derby. Trainer Brad Cox excels off layoffs and should have him ready for an “A” race. The others I’ll be using are Steve Asmussen’s duo of Silver Prospector (3), who beat Wells Bayou last year in Oaklawn Park‘s Southwest Stakes, and Sonneman (9), coming off a strong second behind the highly regarded Maxfield.
Logical Myth (1) is 4-for-5 on Fair Grounds’ grass and comes off four straight strong efforts (two wins, two seconds) for trainer Joe Sharp and rider Adam Beschizza. It’s only his second career stakes but he belongs on the ticket because he’s a horse for course and on the rise. Once again he’ll have to catch Spectacular Gem (8), a need-to-lead type who faded to fifth behind Logical Myth as the 9-5 favorite last time in an ungraded stakes. He’s 5-for-12 on turf with two wins at the Fair Grounds and should move forward second time off a layoff. My third pick is another speed type, Sailing Solo (10), fourth behind Logical Myth and Spectacular Gem last time.
If the front-runners duel, it could set it up for Logical Myth. If either gets loose, we could have a wire-to-wire winner.
When lightly raced 3-year-old fillies get together, it’s often a very chalky result or a hard-to-have upset. Mid-priced winners, the bread and butter of most sharp handicappers, are rare. I doubt whether that pari-mutuel nugget will help you, but I figured I’d just throw it out there.
I whittled this field of nine down to three, and one of them never even has been on the main track. Souper Sensational (1) is 2-for-2 at 7 furlongs on Woodbine’s synthetic surface for Mark Casse, and her pedigree (Curlin out of an Indian Charlie mare) says two turns on dirt will be her game, too.
Also on the ticket are two Brad Cox runners. Both won around two turns at Fair Grounds, and leaving out a Cox runner in a stakes borders on madness. Divine Comedy (6) coasted by 5 1/2 lengths to break her maiden at the Silverbulletday distance, and likely heavy favorite Sun Path (9) cruised by 12 at 1 mile, 70 yards despite breaking through the gate. She might be vulnerable from an outside post because that was her third straight problem in the starting gate.
Is 2-for-2 Mandaloun (10) good enough to overcome an outside post off a seven-week layoff in his first try at a stakes and around two turns? Brad Cox apparently thinks so.
“He’s trained very well at the Fair Grounds,” Cox said. “We’ve always felt he’s cut out to be a two-turn horse. Now we’re going to do what we’ve thought he’s wanted to do all along, and that’s go long.”
It would be no surprise if Mandaloun won, but I can’t take him as a single. Regular Guy, Santa Cruiser and Manor House are speed types who may cancel each other out. If one gets out there on his own and beats me, well, so it goes. As backups to Mandaloun I’ll go with the two inside horses, Midnight Bourbon (1) and Arabian Prince (2). Each has run respectably in two stakes, and sometimes experience makes a big difference with 3-year-olds so early in the year. Midnight Bourbon has more speed than Arabian Prince, who on paper is the best closer.
So here are the numbers: 3,8,9 with 1,8,10 with 1,6,9 with 1,2,10. With a 50-cent base wager, the investment comes to $40.50. And good luck.
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.