Looking for a Longshot in the Louisiana Derby

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 and 1.00-1.

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 gate-to-wire victory.

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 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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