Between the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, plenty of visitors have wandered into New Orleans throughout its long history, but make no mistake, the equine star to date of the current Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots meet is in the Crescent City by plan.
Last year trainer Mark Casse liked how the track with the long stretch, forgiving surface, and logical prep race series for 3-year-olds paved the way for his outstanding filly Wonder Gadot, who placed in three stakes at Fair Grounds before later running second in the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) and then defeating males in the first two legs of the Canadian Triple Crown.
With that good experience fresh in his mind, Fair Grounds made sense for Casse's promising colt for the 2019 classics: War of Will, a son of War Front who last year earned a grade 1 placing on turf before closing out his juvenile season with a five-length romp in a maiden race at Churchill Downs--his first career try on dirt. Both Wonder Gadot and War of Will are owned by Gary Barber.
While Wonder Gadot's biggest successes would follow her time at Fair Grounds, War of Will has thrived in New Orleans, winning the Jan. 19 Lecomte Stakes (G3) by four lengths before taking the Feb. 16 Risen Star Stakes presented by Lamarque Ford (G2) by 2 1/4 lengths--overcoming a start from post 13. The success has moved him to the top of the Road to the Kentucky Derby points list.
Road to the Kentucky Derby Points Leaders
On March 23, War of Will is the 6-5 morning-line favorite in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (G2), the first Road to the Kentucky Derby series race this season to offer 100 points to the winner.
"Gary Barber and I had this conversation after War of Will won at Churchill. He actually came to our training center in Ocala and we talked about which direction we wanted to go," Casse said. "We came really close last year to winning the Kentucky Oaks with Wonder Gadot, and she had all her prepping in New Orleans, and we just think it's a good place. I've got (assistant) David Carroll there, who I have just the utmost respect for. He leads our charges down there and he's got a lot of experience--he's got a lot of Triple Crown experience just himself.
"What you want to do during the wintertime with these Derby horses, you want to get enough racing in them, but you also want to keep them happy and healthy. And in my opinion, New Orleans is the best place to do that."
Road to the Kentucky Derby Points Races
In terms of recent history, Fair Grounds has seen this odd trend where its 3-year-olds fillies have enjoyed success in the Kentucky Oaks while the males have come up just short in the Kentucky Derby.
Last year Monomoy Girl, who won Rachel Alexandra Stakes (G2) at Fair Grounds, became the sixth Kentucky Oaks winner since 2005 to win at least one stakes race at Fair Grounds before their star turn under the Twin Spires. Those winners include Untapable, Summerly, Believe You Can, Proud Spell, and Rachel Alexandra. And that's not counting 2015 Kentucky Oaks winner Lovely Maria, who won an allowance-optional claiming race at Fair Grounds and ran second in the Rachel Alexandra.
Recent top Kentucky Derby finishes off Fair Grounds prep races include Louisiana Derby winner Gun Runner finishing third in 2016. Longshots Commanding Curve in 2014 and Golden Soul in 2013, both finished second in the Louisville classic after finishing third and fourth, respectfully, in the Louisiana Derby. Also in 2013, Louisiana Derby winner Revolutionary finished third in the Louisville classic. Nehro finished second in both the Louisiana Derby and Kentucky Derby in 2011 and Mucho Macho Man placed third in both races that same year. Hard Spun, winner of the 2007 Lecomte, went on to place second in the Derby.
The most recent Louisiana Derby runner to win the Kentucky Derby was Funny Cide in 2003--he finished second in Fair Grounds' biggest Derby prep. The most recent Louisiana Derby winner to win the Louisville classic is Grindstone in 1996. War Emblem, who finished off the board in the 2002 Lecomte and Risen Star, pulled the Kentucky Derby upset.
Should War of Will run well again Saturday, it will be six weeks of preparation for the Kentucky Derby. Casse thinks that times up well for a horse who will have three starts under his belt this season and eight overall.
"The six weeks is not going to be a problem," Casse said. "A big effort hopefully on Saturday and then we get ready for the biggest--we need the biggest effort of his career. But I feel confident in that he'll be ready for it."
This is a column that runs as "The Road" and first appears in BloodHorse Daily.