By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
I don't think there's any question that Saturday's $200,000 Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) at
Fair Grounds is shaping up to be by far the most competitive Road to the
Kentucky Derby prep race so far in 2019. Even with a couple of scratches
expected, a huge field will line up in the starting gate and there are plenty of options
for handicappers to consider.
Let's dig right in and take a look at each horse....
Wicked Indeed: This Steve Asmussen/Winchell Thoroughbreds
runner has shown promise, but was soundly beaten by Lecomte rival Tackett last
time out and will need to step up his game a lot second time going long in
order to contend for more than a spot in the superfecta.
Malpais: At first glance, his maiden win sprinting six furlongs at
Fair Grounds last month doesn't look overly flashy, but I was impressed by the
way this son of Hard Spun overcame adversity to win going away by 5 ¾ lengths.
After dueling for the lead between horses through a fast :21.85 opening
quarter-mile, Malpais had to steady a bit when the outside runner dropped in,
causing Malpais to lose some momentum and drop out of his position. Despite
this obstacle, Malpais casually re-rallied and rolled past the leaders at the
top of the stretch to win going away.
Granted, the Beyer came back slow (74), but I get the
impression there's a lot more to Malpais than meets the eye. As a son of Hard
Spun, he should stretch out around two turns just fine, and trainer Joe Sharp
did fine work on the Fair Grounds Derby trail two years ago with the Louisiana
Derby winner Girvin. I think Malpais can be a serious threat in the Lecomte
Stakes, especially if he saves ground from post two, and his 12-1 morning line
odds are enticing.
Tackett: This son of Limehouse has done nothing wrong since
stretching out around two turns, breaking his maiden by 7 ½ lengths and
following up with an allowance optional claiming victory, both achieved over
the same track and distance as the Lecomte. You can argue that Tackett got a
perfect trip in his maiden win, setting a slow pace before powering clear, but
his pace-tracking allowance win was legitimate as he gamely ran down Owendale to
win by a neck with an 84 Beyer. The best part? Owendale came right back to beat
a promising field in a similar race at Fair Grounds, flattering Tackett's form
and reiterating the strength of that 84 Beyer.
With his speed and versatility, Tackett should be able to
work out a great ground-saving trip from post three, and if he improves at all
off his last run he'll be right in the hunt for victory. The possibility of a
wet track is a question mark, but isn't that the case for most of these
runners? At least if Tackett uses his early speed he might not have to deal
with much (or any) kickback.
Mr. Money: He's bound to attract wagering support based
off his fourth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), and while
there was nothing wrong with his effort that day, he was still beaten 6 ¼ lengths
for third-place, and aside from the top three (particularly the victorious Game
Winner) I'm not convinced that the 2018 Juvenile field was all that strong. The
three next-out winners that have emerged from the Juvenile have all posted
uninspiring Beyer speed figures, while several other Juvenile starters have
disappointed in their subsequent starts.
Now, it might not take a huge effort to win the Lecomte—on
paper, a Beyer in the mid- to high-80s certainly seems possible—but Mr. Money's
career-best 79 Beyer is a bit on the light side for an established stakes
runner. I do rate him among the contenders in the Lecomte Stakes, but based on
his expected price plus the fact that several others have run as fast or faster
on paper, I'm tempted to oppose him for win purposes.
Night Ops: A 0-for-5 maiden, Night Ops did fire off a
career-best run last time out when falling a half-length short of Admire in an
off-the-turf maiden race at Churchill Downs, but that race came back on the
slow side and this is a much tougher spot.
Hog Creek Hustle: I get the impression that this son of
Overanalyze might be best as a late-running sprinter. He never fired off a slow
pace in the 8.5-furlong Iroquois Stakes (gr. III) last September, his lone
start around two turns, and his late-running victory at Churchill Downs two
starts back was aided by a very fast early pace.
Roiland: He did suffer a slow start when finishing fifth in the
Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II), but that was a race that essentially fell
apart late—RacingFlow.com assigned the race a Closer Favorability Ratio (CFR)
of 97 on their 1-to-100 scale, indicating that late runners like Roiland
received a favorable setup. Under the circumstances, I'm a little disappointed
that Roiland didn't finish better, and he was actually losing ground through
the final furlong. He will add blinkers for the Lecomte, and trainer Tom Amoss
has won this race four times, but even with those positives I'll be playing
War of Will: It's hard to knock War of Will's eye-catching
maiden win at Churchill Downs, in which he tracked the pace before pulling
clear easily to win by five lengths with an 82 Beyer. Interestingly, that
marked his debut on dirt following four excellent efforts on turf, including a
runner-up effort in the Summer Stakes (gr. I) and a fifth-place finish in the
Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. I).
But if you want to get picky, you could note that War of
Will's maiden win came in a race where he towered over the
field on class—remember, he was a proven Grade 1 performer running against maidens.
Furthermore, the Churchill Downs main track has a reputation for playing kindly
toward turf horses, and considering that War of Will is bred top and bottom for
success on turf (he's by War Front out of a Sadler's Wells mare), I'm not
entirely convinced that he can transfer his form to Fair Grounds, even if the
track comes up sloppy on Saturday. If he does make the transition without
issue, he can contend for victory, but I have just enough reservations to
refrain from picking him on top.
Mo Speed: A maiden winner on turf at Woodbine, Mo Speed recently
shipped to Fair Grounds and rallied to victory in an off-the-turf allowance
race going 8.5 furlongs, but he only beat three rivals and his winning Beyer
(70) leaves him with form to find against a field of this caliber.
Chase the Ghost: After suffering defeats in his first four starts
sprinting, including a nose loss against Wicked Indeed in the latter's maiden win,
Chase the Ghost stretched out to 8.5 furlongs at Fair Grounds and unleashed a
big finish to win narrowly. Aside from a modest Beyer (77), the effort looks
pretty good on paper, but from a visual perspective it seemed like Chase the
Ghost was handed the race when front-running Eskenforit—the leader by 3 ½ lengths
at the eighth pole—absolutely stopped in the final furlong. Trainer Dallas
Stewart is winning at a 27% rate at the current Fair Grounds meet, and Chase
the Ghost could be an intriguing candidate for inclusion in the trifecta or
superfecta, but finishing in the top two would require another step forward.
Tight Ten: He didn't receive the best of trips in the
Breeders' Cup Juvenile, steadying a bit early on and bouncing off the rail before
winding up racing behind horses for the first time in his career, but he also
came up empty when the real running began and was beaten nineteen lengths. Prior
to that, Tight Ten had twice finished second at the graded stakes level,
including in the 8.5-furlong Iroquois Stakes (gr. III) at Churchill Downs, but
those were not particularly fast races and he's repeatedly shown signs of
greenness. Just look at his debut, where he ducked inward and hit the rail while leading clearly, or the Saratoga Special Stakes (gr. II), where he nearly
pushed eventual winner Call Paul into the rail at the top of the stretch. Given
his quirks, and the fact that he's drawn wide in post eleven, I'll lean against
Tight Ten in the Lecomte.
Plus Que Parfait: He rallied to miss by just a neck in the
Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II), but as I mentioned earlier, that was a
race that fell apart after a fast early pace, and under the circumstances it's
a bit disappointing that Plus Que Parfait failed to pass the victorious
Signalman, who raced much closer to the early pace and maybe even lost focus
late in the race before battling back to prevail. Does this mean that Plus Que
Parfait can't win the Lecomte? Not necessarily, but I'm also tempted to
question the strength of his maiden win at Keeneland, in which Plus Que Parfait
dug down to win by a nose over Harvey Wallbanger. The latter colt has been
something of a "hanger"—a horse who repeatedly makes big moves before
flattening out in the homestretch—and I wonder if Plus Que Parfait's win had
less to do with his own tenacity and more to do with Harvey Wallbanger hitting
the proverbial brick wall in the final furlong.
The good news is, Plus Que Parfait has shown some
tactical speed in the past and doesn't have to employ the same late-running
tactics he put to use in the Kentucky Jockey Club. The bad news is, he's drawn
outside in post twelve and could be in for a wide trip no matter what style he
employs. Putting all this together, I have to take a shot against Plus Que
Parfait in the Lecomte.
Manny Wah: Is Manny Wah a sprinter, or can he win at the
graded stakes level going two turns? Your guess is as good as mine. He's never
finished out of the trifecta sprinting and posted a solid 91 Beyer when
finishing second in the six-furlong Sugar Bowl Stakes at Fair Grounds last
month, but his efforts going a mile or farther have been a mixed bag. He did
win a slow allowance race at Keeneland, and his fourth-place finish behind
future Grade 1 winner Improbable in the Street Sense Stakes wasn't bad, but the
latter race was a one-turn mile and Manny Wah was soundly beaten without an
obvious excuse in the Iroquois Stakes (gr. III), coming home 6 ¾ lengths behind
Tight Ten. I could probably be talked into using Manny Wah if he hadn't drawn
post thirteen, but his wide post could be hard to overcome.
Admire: This Churchill Downs maiden winner is expected to scratch
after drawing post fourteen.
West Texas: Although the lone also-eligible could now run in the Lecomte thanks
to the scratch of Admire, West Texas will be withdrawn as well due to his poor
In a wide-open race that is admittedly difficult to
handicap (especially with wet weather expected), the two colts I like best are #2 Malpais and #3 Tackett. At 12-1 and 6-1 on the morning line, I think both offer
reasonably good value and I wouldn't be afraid to bet them both to win and on
top in the exotics. If forced to choose one over the other, I'd give the nod to
Tackett, but that's a tough call and if the difference in their prices widens I
might have to reconsider.
Now it's your turn!
Who do you like in the Lecomte Stakes?
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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.