Will Bravazo Win Again in the Louisiana Derby?

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 Derby?


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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.

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