By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
The $200,000 LeComte Stakes (gr. III) on January 17th at Fair Grounds poses an interesting handicapping question—what do you do with Eagle, the likely favorite, now that he has drawn the far outside post position in a field of eleven?
From some perspectives, Eagle seems like a standout. Last time out, he turned in an excellent performance to finish third in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) (click link for replay), rallying to be beaten just three-quarters of a length despite encountering traffic on the final turn. Furthermore, the Beyer speed figure that Eagle earned in the Kentucky Jockey Club—a 93—is the highest in the LeComte field by a wide margin, and two starts back, he won an allowance race at Keeneland over a colt named My Johnny Be Good, who returned to win an allowance race at Tampa Bay Downs by 14 ½ lengths. Clearly, there are a lot of reasons to like Eagle in the LeComte!
But drawing post eleven is a bit of a concern. With a short run to the first turn, there is a good chance that Eagle will find himself hung very wide on the first turn, and possible the second as well. Will the potential ground loss prove too much to overcome?
To try and answer that question, we must take a look at Eagle’s rivals and see if any appear capable of stepping up with a top-notch performance that could topple the favorite. I believe there is such a horse entered in the LeComte, although picking him to win could be a major gamble. The horse in question is Runhappy.
Runhappy is a son of Super Saver trained by Laura Wohlers, who had just four starters in 2014 and none in 2013, 2012, or 2011. On paper, Runhappy’s credentials don’t appear all that special—he has run just once, breaking his maiden by 8 ¼ lengths sprinting 6 ½ furlongs on the Polytrack at Turfway Park. A good effort, one that earned a respectable Beyer speed figure, but certainly nothing eye-catching.
But make no mistake, Runhappy’s performance that day was breathtaking, and must be seen to be believed. After breaking slowly, Runhappy found himself racing well behind the early leaders as they sprinted the opening quarter in a quick :22.81 seconds. Then suddenly, Runhappy unleashed a freakish burst of acceleration along the rail, sprinting past horses at an almost unbelievable rate of speed to seize a lead of five lengths after a half-mile in :45.08. Incredibly, Runhappy had run his second quarter-mile in approximately :21 4/5, a brilliant time.
But Runhappy’s performance would only get more impressive. After opening up a huge lead, Runhappy blew the turn into the homestretch, greenly ducking to the far outside and ending up in the middle of the racetrack. His antics didn’t stop there, as he continued to weave down the homestretch. Yet despite these issues, Runhappy only extended his advantage as the finish line approached, running his final sixteenth in a good :06.85 seconds to score a convincing victory. If not for his weaving and ducking in the final quarter mile, I have little doubt that he could have won by twenty lengths, and perhaps more.
Now, in the LeComte, Runhappy will be facing a stiff challenge. In only the second start of his career, he will have to both transition to dirt and stretch out around two turns for the first time. His pedigree suggests that he can handle the changes, but until he does, we can’t know for certain. But even more than the switches in surface and distance, can Runhappy be trusted to turn in a more professional effort than he did in his debut? Although clearly a talented colt, beating maidens at Turfway Park and beating Derby contenders in the LeComte are two entirely different situations, and it is unlikely that Runhappy will be able to blow the turn and still win this race.
Yet despite the obvious question marks, I believe Runhappy has the talent to win the LeComte, and if the price is right on Saturday (6-1 seems fair), I’m willing to give him the benefit of doubt and pick him to win. If his price drops much lower than that, Eagle probably offers better value, so I will be watching the tote board to see how the wagering unfolds.
There are other promising horses in the LeComte as well, including Tiznow R J, who finished third in his first two starts before breaking his maiden at Fair Grounds by 13 ¼ lengths. Trained by Steve Asmussen, this son of (who else?) Tiznow has trained well for this race and seems to be improving, and must be considered a prime contender for the exotics. Another Lemon Drop could also be in the mix based off his five-length victory in a one-mile allowance race at Fair Grounds on December 19th, although like Eagle, he has drawn a bit wide in post ten and could get caught wide on the turns. Then there’s War Story, who is unbeaten and barely challenged in two starts, including a one-mile allowance race at Fair Grounds. His trainer, Tom Amoss, has been winning at a remarkable 42% rate at this Fair Grounds meet—he’s 27-for-64 so far!—and while War Story might be slightly slower than some of his rivals in terms of Beyer speed figures, any improvement at all could land him a major piece of the purse.
So let’s try and hit the trifecta using Eagle and Runhappy in all three slots while adding Tiznow R J for second and third and Another Lemon Drop and War Story for third place only. Superfecta players might also consider International Star (who finished an even fourth in the Kentucky Jockey Club) and Savoy Stomp (who finished third behind subsequent Mucho Macho Man Stakes winner Bluegrass Singer in a one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream.)
Who do you like in the LeComte?
The Road to the Kentucky Derby continues on January 19th with the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park, in which the talented Mr. Z is expected to seek his first stakes victory. Entries will be taken on Friday, and I will put up a new blog post analyzing the race on Saturday evening.
In order to aid in keeping track of all the prep races and results, I will be posting links to the Kentucky Derby prep race schedule and the Kentucky Derby point standings at the bottom of each Unlocking Winners blog post from now until the Derby. Enjoy the racing!