Picking an 8-1 Longshot in the Louisiana Derby

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

The Road to the Kentucky Derby heats up this Saturday with the running of the $1 million Louisiana Derby (G2) at Fair Grounds, a 1 3/16-mile race that awards Kentucky Derby (G1) qualification points on a 100-50-25-15-10 basis to the top five finishers. Both the winner and the runner-up are virtually guaranteed spots in the Kentucky Derby starting gate.

A dozen horses have entered the Louisiana Derby, with #12 Track Phantom (3-1) an obvious morning line favorite for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen. Track Phantom is the only pure pacesetter in the Louisiana Derby field, and he's performed admirably on the Road to the Kentucky Derby at Fair Grounds this winter. He dueled on his way to winning the 1 1/16-mile Gun Runner S., led all the way to take the 1 1/16-mile Lecomte (G3), and finished second by half a length after setting the pace in the Risen Star (G2). With his early speed and consistency, Track Phantom figures to run well again in the Louisiana Derby, even while starting from the far outside post position.

But there may be a couple of chinks in Track Phantom's armor. For starters, he's hit a ceiling from a speed figure perspective; his last four Beyer Speed Figures are 88, 89, 90, and 89, while his last four Brisnet Speed ratings are 93, 94, 90, and 93. He may have less upside for long-term improvement than some of his Louisiana Derby rivals.

For another, the 1 3/16-mile distance of the Louisiana Derby may stretch the limits of Track Phantom's stamina. He's lost ground from the eighth pole to the finish line in five of his six starts, and his pedigree hints that short routes might be preferable to classic distances.

That's why I'm going to oppose Track Phantom with his lightly raced stablemate #2 Hall of Fame (8-1), even though Hall of Fame finished seventh (8 1/4 lengths behind Track Phantom) when they met in the Risen Star.

In the Risen Star, I sided with Track Phantom. Bettors were keen to back Hall of Fame since he entered off a blowout 10 1/4-length maiden victory racing 1 1/16 miles at Fair Grounds, which he completed in a time of 1:44.27 that was faster than the 1:44.73 clocking required by Track Phantom to win the Lecomte on the same afternoon. But I attributed the difference in final time to a stark difference in pace—whereas Hall of Fame tracked and pressed fast fractions of :23.30, :46.76, and 1:11.43, Track Phantom set slow fractions of :24.01, :48.36, and 1:13.15 before finishing strongly down the homestretch.

Track Phantom did outperform Hall of Fame in the Risen Star, but I'm not sure it was the fairest fight. Hall of Fame broke well, but instead of moving forward to press the pace he settled behind runners while racing inside over a sloppy track. A troubled trip ensued—Hall of Fame had to steady around the first turn and continued to race awkwardly in tight quarters until able to shift off the rail a bit. At that point, he found himself racing in between runners before launching a meaningful outside challenge around the far turn. Hall of Fame drew to within a length of the lead before fading in the homestretch.

As mentioned previously, there isn't much pace in the Louisiana Derby field, so I envision Hall of Fame reverting to the pressing tactics he successfully employed in his maiden win. As we learned from his maiden victory, Hall of Fame is capable of pressing some pretty hot fractions, so an unencumbered journey pressing Track Phantom through a modest pace could be the recipe for a big performance. As a son of Gun Runner out of a mare by Giant's Causeway, Hall of Fame has the pedigree to shine racing 1 3/16 miles, so I'm willing to bet this 8-1 shot can outrun expectations and upset his stablemate in the Louisiana Derby.

As for the rest, I'm confident Smarty Jones S. winner and Risen Star third-place finisher #5 Catching Freedom (4-1) will close from the back of the pack to secure another strong finish, quite possibly in the top three. He didn't get the clearest run down the homestretch of the Risen Star, but still finished only 1 1/4 lengths behind Track Phantom.

#7 Honor Marie (8-1) can't be dismissed either. Last year's Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) winner kicked off 2024 by rallying from 11th place to finish fifth in the Risen Star. If he moves forward in his second run of the season, a spot in the superfecta is surely within reach.

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, 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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