By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Excitement is building on the Road to the Kentucky Derby,
and with just six weeks until the first Saturday in May, the final round of
prep races will kick off on March 24th with the $1 million
TwinSpires Louisiana Derby (gr. II) at Fair Grounds.
The nine-furlong race will offer 100 Kentucky Derby
qualification points to the winner and 40 points to the runner-up, in all
likelihood making the race a Derby "Win and You're In" race for the top two
finishers. Perhaps as a result, ten horses have been entered in the Louisiana
Derby, which promises to be a competitive event and a good betting race.
Historically speaking, the winners of the Risen Star
Stakes (gr. II)--the local prep for the Louisiana Derby--have enjoyed strong
success in Fair Grounds' signature race. Over the last ten years, eight Risen
Star winners have competed in the Louisiana Derby, and five of them (Pyro, Friesan Fire, International
Star, Gun Runner, and Girvin) were able to complete the double.
This trend is one reason why I'm going to back Bravazo in the Louisiana Derby. As a
son of Awesome Again out of a Cee's Tizzy mare, the D. Wayne Lukas-trained colt
has the pedigree to be a major player on the Triple Crown trail and has
certainly lived up to those expectations thus far.
Last year, Bravazo showed flashes of talent by finishing
second in the Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) at Keeneland and third in the Street
Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs; in both races, he may have made premature
moves to challenge for the lead, causing him to falter in the homestretch.
In any case, Bravazo has looked like a different horse--a
much more professional and experienced runner--since returning to the races in
January. He kicked off the year by winning a one-mile allowance optional
claiming race at Oaklawn Park, a performance I loved since Bravazo unleashed a
long, sustained rally to catch and defeat the lone front-runner Ezmosh, earning
an 89 Beyer speed figure.
Bravazo was even better in the Risen Star Stakes, showing
more speed than usual to vie for the early lead through fractions :24.15,
:47.96, and 1:12.85--not terribly fast, but respectable for Fair Grounds. Then,
when the real running began, Bravazo engaged the front-running Snapper Sinclair
in a lengthy homestretch battle, accelerating the final five-sixteenths of a
mile in an excellent :30.10 seconds to get up and win by a nose in the final
strides, earning a 93 Beyer speed figure.
Bravazo was ridden to victory that day by Miguel Mena,
but with Mena currently sidelined by injury, the Hall of Fame rider Gary
Stevens--who was aboard for Bravazo's Oaklawn allowance win--will have the mount.
With plenty of speed horses entered in the Louisiana Derby (Noble Indy,
Marmello, Retirement Fund, Hyndford, Snapper Sinclair, and Dark Templar could
all be part of the pace), I suspect that we'll see Bravazo return to
late-running tactics on Saturday, saving ground from post position one before
rallying in the homestretch. With that type of trip, I think Bravazo can
produce a winning run to bring his record this year to a perfect 3-for-3.
If you like Bravazo, then by extension you have to like Snapper Sinclair at least a little bit.
After finishing third in the Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) at Fair Grounds two
months ago, Snapper Sinclair took a big step forward in the Risen Star,
securing the early lead under an aggressive ride from jockey Adam Beschizza and
battling gamely with Bravazo through the length of the homestretch before
falling a nose short at the wire.
Notably, Snapper Sinclair conceded three pounds to
Bravazo in the Risen Star and will have the advantage of even weights in the
Louisiana Derby, but on the other hand, Snapper Sinclair enjoyed a more
favorable ground-saving trip in the Risen Star. A similar trip
seems unlikely on Saturday since Snapper Sinclair has landed in post position
seven with plenty of other speed colts drawn to his inside, and as a result he
could find himself caught up in a quicker pace while racing wide.
A more intriguing upset candidate might be Noble Indy, who ran third in the Risen
Star despite enduring a less-than-perfect trip. In his first two starts at
Gulfsteam Park, Noble Indy delivered eye-catching victories, but he did so
while racing near the front and in the clear, out of traffic. In the Risen
Star, Noble Indy made a bid for the lead but was beaten to the front by Snapper
Sinclair and subsequently received an uncomfortable trip racing behind and in
between horses. The fast finishing fractions also made it difficult for Noble
Indy to gain ground in the final five-sixteenths of a mile, but to his credit
he stayed on gamely to finish just two lengths behind Bravazo.
Noble Indy will be equipped with blinkers for the
Louisiana Derby, a change that suggests he could show more speed, though it's
worth noting that trainer Todd Pletcher--while generally successful when adding
blinkers for the first time--hasn't had the best of luck while making that
change with three-year-olds in graded stakes races. According to stats from DRF
Formulator, over the last five years Pletcher has gone 0-for-14 under those
circumstances, including a fourth-place finish by Vino Rosso in the Tampa Bay
Derby (gr. II) two weeks ago. Considering that there's plenty of speed in the
Louisiana Derby field, I'm not sure Noble Indy is going to get the trip he
needs to turn the tables on Bravazo, though he is certainly a player for the
exacta and trifecta.
The main newcomer to the Fair Grounds prep scene is My Boy Jack, a consistent son of
Creative Cause whose lone off-the-board effort in his last seven starts was a
solid seventh-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. I), in which
he was beaten just three lengths against a quality field of international
competitors. Trained by Keith Desormeaux, My Boy Jack campaigned almost
exclusively on turf last year, but showed hints of potential on dirt when third
behind McKinzie in the Sham Stakes (gr. III) on January 6th, an
effort that was followed by an explosive victory in the Southwest Stakes (gr.
III) a month later at Oaklawn Park.
In the Southwest, My Boy Jack was content to settle near
the back of the pack early on, rating about nine lengths behind fractions of
:23.46 and :47.70 while racing over a muddy, sealed track. Then, under a
perfect ride from jockey Kent Desormeaux, My Boy Jack rallied up the rail, shot
past the leaders in the homestretch, and drew off with authority to win by 4 ½
lengths, earning a 93 Beyer speed figure.
But while this effort was visually impressive, it's worth
noting that the rail seemed to be the best part of the track at Oaklawn that
day, and My Boy Jack also received an ideal pace setup with the second half-mile
being timed in :51.97 (more than four seconds slower than the first half-mile),
making it easier for late runners to gain ground.
This isn't to say that My Boy Jack can't or won't be
competitive in the Louisiana Derby, but I think the circumstances of the
Southwest set him up for a peak effort, and I wouldn't be surprised if he
regresses a little under less favorable circumstances in the Louisiana Derby.
With all of this in mind, perhaps it could pay to keep an
eye on Retirement Fund, who had
pretty much the opposite trip in the Southwest, racing wide while close to the
pace before faltering to finish a distant seventh. Trained by Steve Asmussen,
the son of Eskendereya had previously won two straight races going a mile and
seventy yards at Fair Grounds by a combined 9 ¼ lengths, in the process
defeating fellow Louisiana Derby starter Dark
Templar. I think we'll see Retirement Fund rebound on Saturday, and while
that might not be enough to get him the win, I can envision a scenario where he
squeezes into the superfecta at a big price.
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Louisiana
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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.