Lecomte Stakes Highlights Big Weekend of Derby Preps

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

Get ready, everyone! A huge three-day weekend of racing awaits with three Kentucky Derby prep races on the agenda-the Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) at Fair Groudns, the Jerome Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct, and the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

All three races have drawn interesting and competitive fields. Let's take a look at each one....

Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) at Fair Grounds

On paper, this looks like a two-horse race between Instilled Regard and Principe Guilherme, and while Instilled Regard is the more accomplished and experienced of the two, my preference is for Principe Guilherme. Trained by Steve Asmussen, the promising colt is 2-for-2 so far with a pair of very easy wins at Churchill Downs and Fair Grounds, including an 11 ¼-length romp in an allowance optional claiming race over this track and distance last month.

Granted, Principe Guilherme is drawn wide in post twelve and might have to settle just off the lead on Saturday, as he'll be facing a couple of other speedy colts and might get beaten to the lead for the first time in his career. Then again, the expected scratches of Wonder Gadot and Ciaran should move Principe Guilherme in a couple of slots, and the way he finished in his first two starts (winning with complete authority) suggests we could be looking at a very talented colt.

Instilled Regard took a big step forward last time out when finishing a close third against Solomini and McKinzie in the Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I), a race in which he was placed second via disqualification. A repeat of that effort would put him in the mix, but I hesitate to back him fully since good form at Los Alamitos doesn't always translate to other tracks and he might have been flattening out at the finish.

One longshot that intrigues me is Kowboy Karma, who hails from the barn of Larry Jones, a trainer that has scored three previous victories in the Lecomte. A brief glance at Kowboy Karma's record suggests that he might wind up best as a sprinter, but he did finish a good fourth in the one-mile Champagne Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont Park (in which the graded stakes winners Good Magic and Enticed ran second and third), and Kowboy Karma underwent throat surgery following his most recent race, which could help him breathe better and potentially enhance his stamina. I think he's a major player to finish in the top three.

Jerome Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct

If races were run on paper, then Firenze Fire would be pretty much a shoo-in to win the Jerome Stakes. After all, he is by far the most accomplished horse in the Jerome field, having won the above-mentioned Champagne Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont Park while defeating Good Magic, Enticed and Kowboy Karma. Like the Jerome, the Champagne was a one-turn mile, and a return to that level of form would make Firenze Fire tough to beat.

On the other hand, the son of Poseidon's Warrior was soundly beaten in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) last time out, and in preparation for the Jerome he has turned in just three slow workouts, with the timing of them being a bit inconsistent due to several days of cancelled training at Belmont Park and Aqueduct. Even trainer Jason Servis seems a bit concerned about Firenze Fire's fitness, telling the New York Racing Association Press Office that "We still entered but the training hasn't been ideal."

In contrast, Coltandmississippi has been training smoothly in Florida and could have an edge in fitness. Trained by Todd Pletcher, the son of Pioneerof the Nile was fifth in the one-mile Smooth Air Stakes at Gulfstream Park last time out, but he had a bit of a tough trip that day while racing over a sloppy track and has won two of his other three starts. Coltandmississippi will be equipped with blinkers in the Jerome, which should help him focus, and I believe he's found the perfect spot to make his graded stakes debut. Not only could he be poised to work out a nice trip on or near the lead, he's facing a field that has been compromised by the interrupted training and poor weather in New York, and I think that's a recipe for victory.

Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park

The clear favorite here should be Mourinho, who ships in from California for trainer Bob Baffert, who has enjoyed a string of much-publicized success in Oaklawn's major Kentucky Derby prep races. But while Mourinho is fast and enters off a solid runner-up effort behind the talented Greyvitos in the Bob Hope Stakes (gr. III) at Del Mar, I'm not convinced that Mourinho is unbeatable in this spot. For one, his races thus far hint that he might wind up best as a sprinter, and although it could prove insignificant, the Smarty Jones Stakes is one race that Baffert has yet to win-his lone starter, Toews On Ice, finished sixth in 2016 at odds of 3-5.

Since Mourinho could be a similar price but doesn't seem unbeatable, I'll take a shot with Combatant. The Steve Asmussen-trainee had a bit of a troubled trip last time out in the Remington Springboard Mile, having to wait in traffic during a key point on the far turn, but still ran a huge race to finish a clear second behind Greyvitos.

As a son of Tapit, the distance of the Smarty Jones shouldn't be any issue for Combatant, and I expect him to improve with experience and maturity. With the right trip, I think he can pull off a mild upset in the Smarty Jones.

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


The Unlocking Winners Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge is back for the fourth consecutive year! Please be sure to post all entries, prime horses, and stable additions on the 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 www.theturfboard.com.

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