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Awesome Gem Tops N.O. 'Cap, Blues Street Heads Muniz Memorial 'Cap

West Point Thoroughbreds’ Awesome Gem, a California-based gelding with dangerous recent success as an invader, has been installed a the slight choice at 5-2 in the morning line for Saturday’s 85th running of the Grade II New Orleans Handicap – Fair Grounds’ season highlight for older horses run as part of the Louisiana Derby Day program.

On that same centerpiece afternoon of the Fair Grounds racing season, the Grade II Mervin Muniz Memorial Handicap will be run over the Stall-Wilson turf course as the featured grass test of the Crescent City racing season and Anstu Stables’ Blues Street is pegged as the 3-1 favorite in the 17th renewal of that event.

In the New Orleans Handicap, run at nine furlongs on the main track, Awesome Gem – trained by Craig Dollase – will be ridden by jockey David Flores who rode the gelding when he visited Chicago to take down winning honors in the Grade II Hawthorne Gold Cup last Oct. 3. In Awesome Gem’s previous trip away from California the 7-year-old son of Awesome Again won the Grade III Longacres Mile Handicap at Emerald Downs in the Seattle, Washington, area. In his most recent trip to the post, he was eighth in Santa Anita’s Grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile but beaten less than four when trying the grass course there. He shoulders the top impost of 121 pounds Saturday.

Among the dangerous rivals for Awesome Gem Saturday is Tom McCarthy’s General Quarters, second by a neck in the Grade III Mineshaft Handicap here as the final designed prep for the New Orleans Handicap run Feb. 20, and second to last year’s Louisiana Derby winner Friesan Fire in the $75,000 Louisiana Handicap before that on Jan. 23. Seven-time Fair Grounds jockey champion Robby Albarado has the riding assignment and will make up most of the 120 pounds assigned General Quarters, who is trained by his owner.

Virginia Tarra’ Giant Oak is the third choice in the New Orleans Handicap morning line at 9-2. Trained by Neil Pessin, the 4-year-old entire son of Giant’s Causeway finished third in the Mineshaft Handicap. James Graham gets the mount on Giant Oak, who gets in Saturday with 119 pounds.

Completing the New Orleans Handicap field, with jockeys, weights and odds, is Millennium Farms and James Covello’s Tone It Down, John Jacinto, 113, (20-1); Two Bucks Farm and Glenn Bromagen’s Stones River, Jose Lezcano, 115, (15-1); Southern Equine Stables’ Big Polk a Dot, David Cohen, 112, (20-1); WinStar Farm’s  Hold Me Back,  Kent Desormeaux, 116, (8-1); Brittlyn Stable’s Star Guitar, Curt Bourque, 117, (10-1); Richard Rudolph and Michael Vranich’s Stonehouse, Miguel Mena, 117, (8-1); and Overbrook Farm’s Battle Plan, Javier Castellano, 117, (6-1).

In the Mervin Muniz Memorial Handicap, Blues Street inherited the favorite’s mantle by winning the Grade III Fair Grounds Handicap here by 2 1/4-lengths on Feb. 20. The Fair Grounds Handicap is the final designed prep for the Mervin Muniz Memorial. Trained by Todd Pletcher, the 6-year-old son of Street Cry will be ridden by Javier Castellano once again after being aboard for the win four weeks ago. Blues Street shares the top impost of 119 pounds.

Also with that same impost of 119 pounds in the Muniz Memorial is James Spence’s El Caballo, who won the Grade III Col. E. R. Bradley here by 3 1/4-lengths on Jan. 23 as the first leg of the three-race Stall-Wilson turf course series, but subsequently passed on the Fair Grounds Handicap. El Caballo, trained by Ralph Nicks, led every step of the way but the last one in the 2009 Muniz Memorial before being caught at the wire by Proudinsky, who also won the 2008 Muniz. Robby Albarado is named to handle the reins on El Caballo, who is the second choice in the morning line.

The third horse with the 119-pound assignment is Farnsworth Stables’ Jet Propulsion, who won the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Turf at Gulfstream Park Jan. 30 and then came back to run third – beaten a length and a half for the win – in Gulfstream’s Grade III Canadian Turf Handicap Feb. 20. Trained by Marty Wolfson, Jet Propulsion will be ridden by Shaun Bridgmohan and is the co-third choice in the morning line at 5-1.

Named to oppose those three in the Muniz Memorial, with respective jockeys, weights and odds, are: Wachtel, Brous and Robinette Crawford’s Yate’s Black Cat, Kent Dersormeaux, 117, (6-1); Fritz McTarnahan’s My Happiness, Jamie Theriot, 112, (30-1); EMO Stables’ Pick Six, Shane Sellers, 115, (15-1); Pat Gallagher’s Red Alert Day, David Flores, 115, (8-1); Castle Top Stable’s Baletti, Rajiv Maragh, 114, (5-1); Martin Cherry’s Pickapocket, James Graham, 115, (12-1); H B O Racing Stable’s Feels All Right, Corey Nakatani, 118, (8-1); and Kim and John Glenney’s Transduction Gold, Miguel Mena, (30-1).

Entered for main track only in the Muniz is Two Bucks Farm and Glenn Bromagen’s Stones River, Shaun Bridgmohan, with 111 pounds and pegged at 20-1 in the morning line.