By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
If there has been one trend in the Road to the Kentucky
Derby prep races this winter, it's been the trend of upset victories. Recent
years have seen a high number of winning favorites in winter Derby preps, but
2019 has been noticeably different. A 29-1 upset in the Fountain of Youth, a
62-1 upset in the Southwest Stakes, the defeats of heavy favorites in both
divisions of the Rebel Stakes... you get the picture.
The highlight of this week's Road to the Kentucky Derby
racing action is the $1 million
Louisiana Derby (gr. II) at Fair Grounds, in which #6 War of Will is the clear-cut 6-5 favorite in the morning line.
That alone has me thinking "I must oppose him," but then again, I took a stand
against War of Will in both the Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) and the Risen Star
Stakes (gr. II), which didn't work out particularly well—he won each time with relative
ease, bucking the overall trend of upsets while prevailing at odds of 1.60-1
Trained by Mark Casse, War of Will is simply a very good
horse. A son of War Front, War of Will started his career with a series of
solid efforts on turf, but has gone 3-for-3 since switching to dirt and has the
tactical speed to work out a perfect trip while breaking from post position six
in the Louisiana Derby. Not that he necessarily needs a perfect trip—in the
Risen Star, he overcame a wide draw and a fast pace to win by 2 ¼ lengths, and
he shouldn't face any such obstacles in the Louisiana Derby. In fact, a fast
pace seems rather unlikely given that the majority of the Louisiana Derby
entrants prefer to rally from off the pace.
I suppose one could make a case for #8 Country House to upset War of Will, given that he broke slowly
in the Risen Star Stakes and raced greenly down the homestretch. With a more professional run, he might have caught War of Will, but I'm hesitant to expect a better effort from Country House
on Saturday. He's developed a habit of breaking slowly, and that
might have actually been to his benefit in the Risen Star since the pace was
quick and War of Will was the only pacesetter to survive in a race dominated
overall by closers.
Strictly for win purposes, I would be more intrigued by
backing #10 Spinoff, who hails from
the barn of the four-time Louisiana Derby-winning trainer Todd Pletcher. A
beautifully-bred son of Tapit out of the Grade 1-winning mare Zaftig, Spinoff
won his debut at Gulfstream Park last summer before finishing third in the
Saratoga Special Stakes (gr. II). He came out of that race with an injury and
was sidelined for months, but he returned a winner on February 22nd
at Tampa Bay Downs, tracking a fast pace in a one-mile and 40-yard allowance
optional claiming race before powering clear to win by 11 ¾ lengths over the
stakes-placed Cave Run.
But visually, Spinoff's performance wasn't quite as
striking as his running line; he was a bit green turning for home and didn't
finish up particularly fast, running the fourth quarter-mile in :26.94 seconds.
His tactical speed should be an asset in this race, but while I respect his
chances (and would be tempted to use him in multi-race wagers), it could be a
tough task for him to step up and upset War of Will.
Actually, the real wildcard in this race is #2 Lemniscate. Trained by Kenny McPeek,
Lemniscate hardly attracted attention when finishing fourth in a six-furlong
maiden race for Florida-breds at Gulfstream in January, but he stepped up
significantly a month later to set the pace in a similar race and finish second
behind Last Judgment, who came right back to win an allowance race at Oaklawn
Park over the graded stakes-placed Dessman.
Lemniscate likewise came right back to win, but not on dirt.
Instead, McPeek used a 1 1/16-mile turf race to stretch Lemniscate out in
distance and get another run under his belt, and the colt responded with a
As a front-runner drawn in post position two, Lemniscate
is almost certain to set the pace in the Louisiana Derby, with War of Will and
Spinoff assuming tracking positions. His turf victory and 0-for-2 record on
dirt figure to boost his odds (he's 15-1 on the morning line), but I think a
more accurate take on Lemniscate's form is that he's an improving colt who
benefited from gaining experience and stretching out in distance. Now he's
switching from turf to dirt, a powerful angle for McPeek (21% wins and a $2.81
ROI per Daily Racing Form statistics),
and if Lemniscate can shake loose through modest fractions, he might be tougher
to run down than anyone expects.
Determining the best play in the Louisiana Derby could
become a question of odds. If you concede a 50% chance of winning to War of
Will, a 10% chance to Spinoff, Lemniscate, and Country House, and a combined
20% to everyone else (admittedly rough numbers that could use some fine-tuning), then War of Will is
mathematically a fair price at even-money while Spinoff, Lemniscate, and
Country House are fairly priced at 9-1.
Looking at it that way, Lemniscate's 15-1 morning line
odds start to look pretty appealing, especially when you consider that McPeek's
three-year-olds tend to outrun expectations on the Derby trail. Since 2015,
McPeek has sent out just 12 three-year-olds to compete in Road to the Kentucky
Derby prep races, and the results have been two upset victories (29-1 Harvey
Wallbanger in the 2019 Fountain of Youth and 11-1 Senior Investment in the 2017
Lexington Stakes) and one high-priced runner-up (22-1 The Truth Or Else in the
2015 Southwest Stakes).
I can't exactly peg Lemniscate as the most likely winner
of the Louisiana Derby—that honor certainly belongs to War of Will—but he's an
interesting alternative if you want to go outside the box with a longshot play.
And after playing against War of Will in both the Lecomte and the Risen Star,
you just knew I was going to try again, right?
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.