Betting On Speed in the Lecomte Stakes

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

The Road to the Kentucky Derby continues on Saturday with the $200,000 Lecomte S. (G3) at Fair Grounds, a 1 1/16-mile qualifier worth 20-10-6-4-2 points to the top five finishers.

Eight horses have entered the Lecomte, and it's shaping up as a rematch of last month's $100,000 Gun Runner S., which likewise took place over 1 1/16 miles at Fair Grounds. The odds-on favorite to win the Gun Runner was #2 Nash (5-2), a Godolphin homebred fresh off a 10 1/4-length maiden victory racing 1 1/16 miles at Churchill Downs. But Nash ran below his best in the Gun Runner and settled for third place behind #7 Track Phantom (7-5), the morning line favorite to win the Lecomte.

Part of me wants to make a case for Nash to turn the tables, and there's potentially a path to that outcome—more on that in a moment. But Track Phantom ran such a strong race in the Gun Runner, I'm inclined to believe he's the better horse at the moment.

After all, the Gun Runner unfolded with an eye-catching early speed duel that should have compromised Track Phantom. Breaking from the outside post in a field of seven, Track Phantom broke running, but hooked up with the rail-drawn longshot #1 Next Level (30-1) in a battle for early supremacy. The two pace rivals opened up five lengths on the rest of the field through an opening quarter-mile in :23.61, and they actually accelerated during the second quarter-mile, clocking the distance in :23.32 to record half a mile in :46.93.

It would have been understandable to see the two colts tire after their early exertions, and indeed, Next Level faded to finish last by 32 1/4 lengths. But Track Phantom continued on, turning back a mid-race challenge from Nash and a homestretch bid from deep-closing Snead to prevail by 1 1/4 lengths.

Now, there are things to like about Nash's performance. He gained 2 3/4 lengths on the leaders through that swift second quarter, running the distance in approximately :22.86. And he continued to gain ground through the third quarter-mile, advancing to second place by one length at that juncture. But he ultimately failed to sustain his bid, weakening down the homestretch to finish third by three lengths.

Looking at the Lecomte entries, the race figures to unfold in a much different manner than the Gun Runner. Next Level is slated to scratch, which ought to have two effects. One, it should allow Track Phantom to escape with easier fractions up front than he did in the Gun Runner. Two, it should allow Nash to secure a more forwardly placed position in the early going. When Nash broke his maiden, he led all the way through modest fractions, and after his disappointing run in the Gun Runner I have to think he'll be more aggressive this Saturday.

If my interpretation is correct, I believe Nash will run an improved race in the Lecomte. But I still have to side with Track Phantom to maintain his edge. The pace setup of the Gun Runner should have favored Nash at the expense of Track Phantom, yet Track Phantom turned back his favored rival to win comfortably in the end. For this reason, I'm concluding Track Phantom has the speed to emerge victorious from a head-to-head battle with Nash.

The one big wildcard in the Lecomte is #4 Can Group (6-1), a turf horse who beat a quality field in the Bourbon S. (G2) last fall before finishing fourth by two lengths against an international field in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1). There's clearly talent here, but will Can Group bring his A-game while switching to dirt?

It's not out of the question. Can Group started his career with a pair of third-place finishes sprinting against maiden special weight competition at Ellis Park. In one of those contests, Can Group was beaten by Timberlake and West Saratoga, who respectively went on to win the Champagne S. (G1) and Iroquois S. (G3).

Can Group has improved since stretching out in distance and boast a reasonably dirt-oriented pedigree; his half-sister Flat Out Speed even won the Iowa Oaks (G3) on dirt. While I'm picking Track Phantom to win the Lecomte, I wouldn't want to play a multi-race wager without including Can Group in some capacity.


1st: Track Phantom
2nd: Nash
3rd: Can Group

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Lecomte?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, 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.

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