Plenty of Options in Competitive Louisiana Derby

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Although the first of the 100-point Kentucky Derby prep races was held last Saturday (that being the UAE Derby in Dubai), the climax of the Kentucky Derby trail begins this weekend with the $1 million Florida Derby (gr. I) at Gulfstream Park and the $1 million Louisiana Derby (gr. II) at Fair Grounds. Both races have drawn solid fields, though the more competitive race appears to be the Louisiana Derby, which is where we'll focus our attention today.

Louisiana Derby (gr. II)

On paper, this race looks like a rematch between the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) 1-3-4 finishers Girvin, Local Hero, and Guest Suite. Girvin figures to start as the heavy favorite off his professional and decisive performance in the Risen Star, in which he won by two lengths to bring his record on dirt to a perfect 2-for-2.

While this was a great run from a visual perspective, it should be noted that Girvin received a perfect trip in the Risen Star, saving ground every step of the way while rating behind a quick pace. Girvin does deserve credit for staying completely relaxed while inside of horses and in slightly tight quarters early on, but even with a pacemaker (Hotfoot) entered to ensure another fast pace, it's hard to envision Girvin getting the same perfect trip on Saturday. After breaking from the rail in the Risen Star, Girvin has drawn post eight in the Louisiana Derby and could be in for a wider trip.

For these reasons, I'm going to take a shot with Local Hero to turn the tables. In the Risen Star, Local Hero was urged out of the starting gate to beat several rivals to the lead, but this early urging proved troublesome when Local Hero--now engaged and rolling on the lead--refused to relax and settle down. After running the opening quarter-mile in :23.70, Local Hero sped up significantly in the second quarter-mile, running the fraction in :23.32 while opening up a six-length lead. That resulted in a :47.02 half-mile fraction, a legitimately fast pace for Fair Grounds and one that surely hampered his chances.

Despite his early exertions, Local Hero led into the homestretch and battled on gamely to finish third, beaten just 4 ¼ lengths. While there's always a chance that Local Hero could run off again (especially with Hotfoot entered to ensure a fast pace), I'm willing to bet on the possibility that Local Hero relaxes this time and takes a big step forward. His workouts in preparation for the Louisiana Derby have been sharp, including six furlongs in a quick 1:12 2/5 on March 20th (he worked in company with Iron Fist), and Fair Grounds' leading rider Florent Geroux has the mount once again. Local Hero is 7-2 on the morning line, and I'd be happy with that price.

Guest Suite won the LeComte Stakes (gr. III) at Fair Grounds two starts back before finishing fourth in the Risen Star, a neck behind Local Hero. Compared to his Risen Star conquerors, Guest Suite will be picking up less weight in the Louisiana Derby (he'll carry two pounds more than he did in the Risen Star, compared to six pounds more for Girvin and Local Hero), but I was slightly disappointed that Guest Suite didn't produce a stronger rally in the Risen Star despite an ideal pace setup.

On the other hand, even though Guest Suite has been a closer in his last two starts, he showed significantly more speed when triumphing in a one-mile allowance race at Churchill Downs last November. Don't be surprised if Guest Suite shows a bit more tactical speed in the Louisiana Derby, helping him to get into the race earlier than he did in the Risen Star.

Todd Pletcher has won this race three times and will send out Patch and Monaco in the 2017 renewal. The former is attracting most of the pre-race attention after breaking his maiden going at mile at Gulfstream on February 18th, but while he earned solid speed figures (an 89 Beyer and a 101 BRIS), I felt that he took advantage of a perfect setup, tracking the pace over a speed-favoring track before reeling in the longshot leader through a :26.52 final quarter. With Pletcher's main jockeys riding in Florida on Saturday, Pletcher has assigned the mount to Tyler Gaffalione, but Pletcher and Gaffalione have gone 0-for-8 together since the beginning of 2016.

I actually find Monaco to be a bit more intriguing. The son of Uncle Mo sold for $1.3 million as a two-year-old in training, and while his career-best Beyer is just a 65, he has shown flashes of talent in two races at Gulfstream Park this winter. On January 7th, he finished second by a half-length in an 8.5-furlong maiden special weight over a sealed track, despite appearing very unfocused throughout the race. He seemed to be going nowhere when under urging on the far turn, but suddenly found another gear in deep stretch and re-rallied despite running with his ears straight up, suggesting that he wasn't giving everything he had.

Monaco subsequently broke his maiden by 12 lengths on February 12th at Tampa Bay Downs, and while the final time translated to a Beyer of just 58, Monaco appeared to be very unfocused once again and seemed to win on sheer superiority without giving anywhere near his best. Perhaps as a result, Monaco will race with blinkers in the Louisiana Derby, an equipment change that I believe could significantly improve his performance. Furthermore, on March 25th, Monaco breezed a half-mile in company with the five-year-old graded stakes winner Tommy Macho, going the distance in :49 1/5 while getting the better of Tommy Macho during both the work and the gallop-out.

While Monaco will obviously need to take a big step forward to factor in the Louisiana Derby, I do believe he's better than his speed figures suggest, and how often can you get 12-1 on a Pletcher runner in a major Derby prep race?

I would also like to mention Senior Investment, who has crossed the wire first in three straight races. Trained by Kenny McPeek, the son of Discreetly Mine possesses a strong late rally, which he showcased impressively on February 18th at Oaklawn Park, when he exploded down the homestretch of an 8.5-furlong allowance race to win by three lengths. Two starts back, he won a similar event going a mile at Fair Grounds, and while he was disqualified to seventh for causing interference, he still finished ahead of the talented colts It's Your Nickel, Society Beau, and Resiliency, all of which came back to run improved Beyer speed figures.

Senior Investment has also posted a serious of sharp workouts this month, with times noticeably faster than his works earlier this year. I get the feeling that Senior Investment is sitting on another step forward, and you can't deny that he knows how to win. If the early pace gets heated, Senior Investment might be the greatest danger from off the pace.

So to recap, I have to take a chance with Local Hero on top since his Risen Star effort was excellent given the fractions that he set. If he is able to relax on Saturday, I think he'll respond with a much-improved effort.  Girvin warrants respect once again, but his perfect-trip win in the Risen Star means that he could be an underlay in the wagering, making Senior Investment the most intriguing of the closers at 12-1. For anyone playing the superfecta, I wouldn't count out Monaco, who might be just as talented as his stablemate while offering much higher odds.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Louisiana Derby?



The Unlocking Winners Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge is back for a third consecutive year! Please be sure to post all entries, prime horses, and stable additions on the official contest page. 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

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