By J. Keeler Johnson (“Keelerman”) Twitter: @J_Keelerman
The Road to the Kentucky Derby will continue in a big way this weekend when Fair Grounds and Oaklawn Park get their Derby prep races underway with the $200,000 LeComte Stakes (gr. III) and the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes. Since entries for the latter race have not yet been drawn, we’ll focus our attention this week on the LeComte, which has drawn an overflow field of fifteen starters.
|1||Riding in the Wind||Juan Vargas||Jose Lopez||1st Allowance (Video Not Available)|
|2||Fish Trappe Road||Robby Albarado||Bret Calhoun||2nd Sleepy Hollow Stakes (VIDEO)|
|3||Uncle Walter||Miguel Mena||Mike Maker||2nd Allowance (VIDEO)|
|4||Z Royal||Victor Espinoza||D. Wayne Lukas||1st Maiden Special Weight (VIDEO)|
|5||Dolphus||Brian Hernandez, Jr.||Joe Sharp||3rd Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)|
|6||Noble Thought||Colby Hernandez||Mike Stidham||1st Maiden Special Weight (VIDEO)|
|7||Mo Tom||Corey Lanerie||Tom Amoss||3rd Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)|
|8||Battle Tap||Patrick Valenzuela||Steve Asmussen||5th Springboard Mile Stakes (VIDEO)|
|9||Indygo Breeze||Mitchell Murrill||John Haran||7th Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)|
|10||Pinnacle Peak||Florent Geroux||Mike Stidham||1st Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)|
|11||Tiznoble||Jose Valdivia, Jr.||Joe Sharp||1st Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)|
|12||Mending Fences||Richard Eramia||Danny Pish||1st Maiden Special Weight (VIDEO)|
|13||Destin||Julien Leparoux||Todd Pletcher||2nd Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)|
|14||Tarpon Bay Road||James Graham||James Baker||2nd Maiden Special Weight (VIDEO)|
|15||Tom’s Ready||Shaun Bridgmohan||Dallas Stewart||2nd Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)|
Note: Noble Thought and Battle Tap are expected to scratch from the LeComte.
I have been looking at the LeComte past performances for several days, but despite my efforts, the race still looks fairly inscrutable on paper. I can make a strong case for a half-dozen horses in the race, and trying to separate the best of them is akin to splitting hairs. But I’m ready to give it a shot!
The morning line favorite at 7-2 is Mo Tom, a stakes-winning son of Uncle Mo trained by Tom Amoss. Two starts back, Mo Tom produced a big rally to win the one-mile Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs, and when stretched out to two turns for the first time, he rallied to finish third in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) despite having to steady slightly on the far turn.
Still, there are a couple of things to consider about Mo Tom’s performance. First off, he received a beautiful ground-saving trip, covering 20 feet less than runner-up Mor Spirit according to data from Trakus. Secondly, the track was sloppy at Churchill Downs on the day of the Kentucky Jockey Club, and when the track is wet at Churchill, the rail tends to be the best part of the track, meaning that Mo Tom was probably running on better ground than many of his rivals. All this isn’t to say that Mo Tom won’t win the LeComte Stakes—he looks like a very talented horse, and he might relish the long homestretch at Fair Grounds—but I still have a gut feeling that he might be at his best around one turn, and as the 7-2 favorite in a large field, I think it’s worth playing against him.
Three horses that really intrigue me are Pinnacle Peak, Tom’s Ready, and Dolphus, the 1-2-3 finishers in a one-mile and seventy-yard allowance race at Fair Grounds on December 18th. Pinnacle Peak has been very inconsistent throughout his career, with his two victories being separated by three straight defeats by a combined 54 lengths, but he took a big step forward to defeat Tom’s Ready and Dolphus in nearly gate-to-wire fashion while showing a lot of determination in the homestretch. Florent Geroux, who has been winning a remarkable 27% of his races here at Fair Grounds, will have the mount, but can he work out a good trip for Pinnacle Peak while starting from post position eight? It’s interesting to note that Pinnacle Peak’s two victories have come on the only two occasions when he was able to secure a clear early lead, and that seems unlikely to happen on Saturday due to the presence of the speedy Fish Trappe Road, who will break from post two. In general, I have a lot of respect for Pinnacle Peak, but he’s also conceding weight to the majority of his rivals, so there are just enough question marks to make me look elsewhere for the winner.
Tom’s Ready is a proven stakes competitor that finished second to Mo Tom in the Street Sense, and despite a somewhat troubled trip last time out, he put up a good fight against Pinnacle Peak and fell just a neck short of winning after racing wide on the second turn. The biggest question mark for Tom’s Ready is that he will have to start from the far outside post position, and as a horse that likes to race just a few lengths off the early lead, he figures to get caught wide on the first turn and likely the second turn as well, which could compromise his chances.
As a result, Dolphus is the colt that I like best coming out of the December 18th allowance race. The half-brother to 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra unleashed a big finish to win his debut sprinting six furlongs at Fair Grounds on November 22nd, then stretched out in distance and showed more early speed while tracking Pinnacle Peak’s pace in the allowance race. Under the circumstances, it wasn’t a surprise to see Dolphus tire and finish third, but he actually ran huge in defeat, taking the lead coming off the turn and staying in contention until the final furlong. He should benefit a lot from that effort, which was only his second race, and I think we’ll see him take a big step forward in the LeComte. Additionally, he will start from post position five, which should help him save some ground and work out a nice trip.
But the horse I like best in the LeComte is Uncle Walter, who races for the team of owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey, trainer Mike Maker, and jockey Miguel Mena, who swept last year’s series of Kentucky Derby preps at Fair Grounds with International Star. The Ramseys also won the 2013 LeComte with Vicar's in Trouble, meaning that a LeComte win by Uncle Walter would give them three straight wins in the race.
After finishing strongly to win his debut going seven furlongs at Keeneland, Uncle Walter tackled a 7 1/2-furlong allowance race at Churchill Downs, in which he rallied wide and fell just a head short of catching that talented Synchrony after a prolonged homestretch battle. The LeComte will mark Uncle Walter’s first start around two turns, but he did run the final three-sixteenths of his allowance race in about :18 2/5 seconds, a very impressive fraction that bodes well for his chances of stretching out. He also has a pedigree that suggests two turns is within reach (he’s a half-brother to a couple of horses that won around two turns), and he’s drawn post position three, which will hopefully allow Miguel Mena to employ the ground-saving tactics that were so successful with International Star last year. For all these reasons, Uncle Walter is my selection to win.
I’d also like to briefly mention Fish Trappe Road, the above-mentioned front-runner that finished second in the one-mile Sleepy Hollow Stakes at Belmont Park last time out. He looks to have enough early speed to clear Riding in the Wind and secure the early lead, and from there—free from traffic troubles and wide trips—he might be able to take this field a long way on the front end.
Now it’s your turn! Who do you like in the LeComte Stakes?
To help simplify the process of choosing and keeping track of everyone's prime horse selections in our 2016 Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge, I would like to ask everyone to please submit their prime choice each week by leaving a special comment on the official blog page for the contest. This will greatly reduce the chances of any prime horse selections getting overlooked, and will also make it simpler to double-check the standings. Thanks, and enjoy the racing!
J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website http://www.theturfboard.com/.