Sunday: A New Orleans Handicap for the Ages?

Twin Creeks Racing Stable’s Mission Impazible, the 5-year-old defending champion from last season’s Grade II New Orleans Handicap and winner of the Grade II Louisiana Derby two years ago, is set to match strides with George and Lori Hall’s 4-year-old Pants On Fire – the hero of last year’s $1 million Louisiana Derby – in Sunday’s 86th renewal of Fair Grounds’ traditional season highlight for older horses on the main track.

The $400,000 New Orleans Handicap, for 4-year-olds and upward, is run at nine furlongs over the Crescent City oval and is the undercard highlight on Fair Grounds’ gala 14-raceLouisiana Derby Day  – which is also the closing day program of this 140th local racing season.

In his only start this winter, Mission Impazible, conditioned by five-time Eclipse Award-winning conditioner Todd Pletcher, was beaten only a nose in Gulfstream’s Grade I Donn Handicap Feb. 11.

On the other hand, Pants On Fire made his seasonal debut a winning one by capturing a one-mile test at Gulfstream with a facile 4 1/2-length tally despite being kept three-wide in the lane. Trained by Kelly Breen, who saddled George and Lori Hall’s Ruler On Ice to win last spring’s Belmont Stakes, Pants On Fire will also be making his second start of the 2012 racing season.

Nationally prominent and current red-hot reinsman Javier Castellano has been named to handle the reins on Mission Impazible, who will shoulder the top impost of 122 pounds Sunday while Fair Grounds’ defending jockey champion Rosie Napravnik, already assured of her second straight local title, will be in the irons aboard Pants On Fire with 118 pounds assigned.

However, despite the allure of a face-off between two Louisiana Derby winners in Sunday’s New Orleans Handicap, this year’s running of the Crescent City classic for older Thoroughbreds promises to be far more than a two-horse race.

Zayat Stables’ Nehro, second by a neck to Pants On Fire in last seasons Louisiana Derby and subsequently runner-up in the Grade I Arkansas Derby and the 2011 Kentucky Derby, returned to competition to win a conditioned allowance race at Fair Grounds Feb. 25 by 7 1/4-length and appears primed to give his best effort in the New Orleans Handicap under the tutelage of Fair Grounds’ 10-time trainer champion Steve Asmussen.

Nehro, a son of 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft, breezed four furlongs Tuesday morning at Fair Grounds in 50.20 and will be ridden by 2010 Fair Grounds jockey champion Shaun Bridgmohan Sunday with 116 pounds.

Jay Em Ess Stable’s Redeemed, third in the Donn in his seasonal bow, closed out his 2011 campaign with an impressive 2 1/4-length victory in Aqueduct’s Grade III Discovery Handicap Nov. 19 after previously annexing Remington’s $400,000 Oklahoma Derby Oct. 16. Fair Grounds-based conditioner Paul McGee will saddle Redeemed in the New Orleans Handicap. Veteran Peruvian-born reinsman Edgar Prado will make up most of the second high weight of 120 pounds.

Dianne Cotter’s Toby’s Corner, winner of last year’s Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct but subsequently sidelined, has been prepared by trainer Graham Motion to make his second start of 2012 in the New Orleans Handicap after finishing third in Laurel’s Grade II General George Handicap Feb. 20. Eddie Castro will ride with a 117 pound assignment.

Windy Hill Farm’s Nates Mineshaft, hero of Fair Grounds’ Grade III Mineshaft Handicap Feb. 25 as the designed prep for the April 1 main event, has been trained up to Sunday’s race by conditioner Austin Smith and will carry 118 pounds including jockey Jesse Campbell.

Jim Tafel’s Fast Alex, runner-up in the Mineshaft ’Cap and the $100,000 Louisiana  Handicap as the first leg of the local horse series Jan. 21, won Fair Grounds’ $75,000 Tenacious Handicap Dec. 17 and is trained by Greg Geier. The 5-year-old is assigned 116 pounds Sunday and will be ridden by Robby Albarado again.

Also, Mark Gorman, Neil Haymes and Sterling Stable’s Thirtyfirststreet, eighth in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap March 3 after being bumped into the rail in upper stretch, will invade from the West Coast for trainer Doug O’Neill and have French-born rider Julien Leparoux astride with 113 pounds assigned.

Lothenbach Stables’ Mister Marti Gras, who last visited the winner’s circle in Churchill’s in Grade III Ack Ack Handicap, last fall gets in the New Orleans Handicap with 114 pounds, and is to be saddled by conditioner Neil Pessin and be ridden by John Velazquez but is cross-entered Sunday.