By Richard Rosenblatt
The Fair Grounds presents Road to the Derby Day on Saturday, featuring the Lecomte Stakes (G3) for 3-year-olds, plus an intriguing matchup between newly-turned 4-year-olds Mandaloun and Midnight Bourbon in the Louisiana Stakes (G3).
It’s quite an impressive 14-race card at the New Orleans racetrack: Six stakes races, with the Lecomte and the Silverbulletday for 3-year-old fillies offering qualifying points of 10-4-2-1 for the Kentucky Derby (G1) and the Kentucky Oaks (G1), respectively.
Brad Cox-trained Mandaloun is the even-money favorite over Steve Asmussen’s Midnight Bourbon (6-5) in the sixth meeting of these two top-tier colts – Mandaloun leads in wins, 2-1 (and leads 3-2 in finishing ahead of his rival).
Mandaloun is 5-1-1 in eight starts ($1.65 million in earnings for Juddmonte Farms), and his second-place finish in the Derby could turn into a win if first-place finisher Medina Spirit is disqualified (the horse’s post-race test was positive for a banned race-day medication).
Last seen at the races, Mandaloun won the Haskell Stakes (G1) at Monmouth Park on July 17 after first-place finisher Hot Rod Charlie was DQ’d for interference in the stretch that caused Midnight Bourbon to stumble badly.
“He’s really come to hand quick,” Cox said of the six-month layoff. “He looks amazing. Happy with the way his weight is and how he’s taken shape. Excited about getting him back going this year and we will see how things go.”
Midnight Bourbon, meanwhile, keeps rolling along, albeit without a win since topping Mandaloun a year ago in the 2021 Lecomte. However, he finished second in the Preakness (G1), Travers (G1) and Pennsylvania Derby (G1) before a third-place finish in the Clark Stakes (G1) at Churchill Downs on Nov. 26. Along the way, he’s amassed earnings of $1.67 million for Winchell Thoroughbreds with a record of 13-2-5-4.
“As good as he’s been, I think there is more there,” Asmussen said. “It doesn’t look like he’s finishing it off. He’s not exhausted when he comes back. I think we can get a little more out of him.”
Mandaloun will be ridden by Florent Geroux out of post 2; Midnight Bourbon leaves from post 3 under Joel Rosario.
A field of seven was entered, with Sprawl at 10-1, followed by Chess Chief and Warrant each at 12-1, and Pirate’s Punch and Spa City each at 20-1.
The other stakes at the Fair Grounds are on the turf: the $100,000 Duncan F. Kenner for 4-year-olds and up, the $100,000 Marie G. Krantz Memorial for 4-and-up fillies and mares, and the $100,000 Colonel E.R. Bradley for 4-year-olds and up.
With snowstorms and frigid temperatures in many parts of the country, the weather in New Orleans calls for sunny skies on Saturday, with temperatures in the 40s.
NYRA canceled racing at Aqueduct on Friday and Saturday due to extremely chilly weather forecasts for the New York city area. Racing is set to resume on Sunday (Jan. 23) with the $100,000 Jail and $100,000 Franklin Square.
With no racing at the Big A, “America’s Day at the Races” on FOX Sports will still carry live racing coverage from 2:30-5:30 p.m. on FS2, featuring races from other tracks around the country. TVG also will have live coverage from a numbers of tracks.
$200,000 Lecomte Stakes (G3), 1 1/16 miles, 3-year-olds
First or second in four of five starts as a 2-year-old, including a runner-up finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), Pappacap is currently the Derby points leader with 12, and is 20-1 as Pool 2 of the Derby Future Wager opened on Friday (Jan. 21).
“I feel really comfortable at Fair Grounds,’’ Casse said “We had a lot of success over that track. I think it’s a great atmosphere and I have a lot of confidence in David Carroll (assistant on the grounds). I think the track there suits him. He’s a horse that wants to settle a little bit and not have to hustle a whole lot. He gets over the ground really well there.”
Joe Bravo has the call leaving from post 3.
Epicenter is the 9-5 second choice for trainer Steve Asmussen, leaving from post 5 under Joel Rosario. Epicenter is 2-for-3, winning the Gun Runner Stakes by 6 ½ lengths at the Fair Grounds on Dec. 26.
“He’s exciting,” Asmussen said. “The Gun Runner and two turns, restrained a little bit early, the way he ran through the wire and galloped out was everything we were hoping for.”
If this one works for Steve Asmussen, it could be the start of a Silverbulletday (La Crete)-Louisiana Stakes (Midnight Bourbon)-Lecomte (Epicenter) sweep for the Hall of Fame trainer.
La Crete dominated in going wire-to-wire in her career debut at Churchill Downs on Nov. 20 and is the 2-1 favorite in a field of six.
Al Stall, Jr.-trained Fannie and Freddie and Todd Pletcher-trained Sweet as Pie are the 5-2 co-second choices.
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.