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Can ‘Rachel’ Rule Over Fair Grounds Oaks-Kentucky Oaks Double?

Headlines for Friday, March 13, 2009

· Can ‘Rachel’ Rule Over Fair Grounds Oaks-Kentucky Oaks Double?
· McPeek’s Free Country, Our Dahlia Ready for Saturday
· Trainer Al Stall, Jr. Covers Terrain, ‘Star’ and ‘Charlie’ Friday
· Apprentice Jockey Anna Roberts Makes Picture-Perfect Debut

Can ‘Rachel’ Rule Over 2009 Fair Grounds Oaks-Kentucky Oaks Double?

NEW ORLEANS, La. – Three of the last four winners of the Fair Grounds Oaks have gone on to capture the Kentucky Oaks. Might that soon become four out of five?

Can L and M Partners’ Rachel Alexandra, the 4-5 morning line choice for Saturday’s Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks justify this weekend’s favoritism and then go on to capture this spring’s Kentucky Oaks seven weeks hence?

That’s probably not too much of stretch for consideration. The daughter of Medaglia d’Oro, bred by part-owner Dolphus Morrison in Kentucky, first drew national attention last fall at Churchill when she won the Grade II Golden Rod Stakes by 4 3/4 lengths.

Then, after training at Oaklawn this winter, Rachel Alexandra made her much anticipated 2009 debut in the $50,000 Martha Washington on Feb. 15 and exceeded all expectations – coming from off the pace to draw off late for an eight-length score.

“When she first came to us I thought she might turn out to be something special,” said veteran trainer Hal Wiggins. “In fact, I remember telling my wife before the filly ever ran that she would probably become the best horse we’ve ever had.

“However, now I think she’s turning out to be even more than I originally thought she’d be. In her first race, she didn’t look like she knew what she was supposed to be doing out there, but in her second time out, she began to look like the filly I thought she’d be. It almost seemed like she broke before the rest of the field – she was that quick.

“Also, she came to us from some very good horsemen down at Diamond D Ranch, and they said they thought she might be something special before she ever got to us. Ed Dodwell and his son ‘Scooter’ operate their farm down in Lone Oak, Texas, and we’ve worked with them a long time. They’ve developed a lot of good horses for a lot of people and we think very highly of whatever they tell us about the horses they send us.”

Rachel Alexandra, named for Morrison’s oldest granddaughter, got to New Orleans Thursday morning, and the Wiggins family is driving up down from Hot Springs in time for the Fair Grounds races Friday afternoon. The filly got her final work Sunday at Hot Springs, a routine half-mile breeze in 49.20 that was not without incident prior to its accomplishment.

“Calvin Borel was up on my filly, but the work had delayed about 15 minutes because an exercise rider had just been thrown and had to be removed by ambulance just as my filly was coming on the track,” said Wiggins. “I was pretty mad about the delay at the time, but now I know that the rider suffered a broken leg. Now I’m just glad that rider is going to be okay.”

McPeek’s Free Country, Our Dahlia Ready for Saturday

It’s Friday the 13th, so excuse trainer Ken McPeek if he’s feeling somewhat superstitious on the eve of Louisiana Derby Day.

“Repent and Take Charge Lady were in the same barn,” McPeek said Friday morning outside Barn 28.

Select Stable’s Repent captured the 2002 Louisiana Derby, one day after his stablemate Take Charge Lady won the Fair Grounds Oaks. McPeek is the last trainer to sweep the two biggest 3-year-old races of Fair Grounds’ meet.

On Saturday, McPeek goes for a repeat, albeit with a pair of higher-priced horses. He’ll saddle Michael and Lenora Paulson’s Our Dahlia in the Fair Grounds Oaks, and 90 minutes later, he’ll send out Silver Wing Stable’s Free Country in the 96th Louisiana Derby.

While Our Dahlia comes to New Orleans off back-to-back wins at Gulfstream Park, Free Country was fourth, beaten 8 1/4 lengths as the 1.90-1 favorite in the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes Feb. 14 at Tampa Bay Downs, his first defeat in three career starts.

“The Tampa race is a throwout,” McPeek said, shortly after watching Free Country jog two miles just after the renovation break. “He did not handle the racetrack at any time. I’ve probably lost there with the last 10 favorites I’ve sent out.”

McPeek will make an equipment change on Free Country, adding blinkers for the first time. “It’s a new element, and I think it will be a positive for him,” McPeek said.

Our Dahlia, one of three Fair Grounds Oaks starters to be listed among the 23 individual interests in this weekend’s Kentucky Oaks Future Wager, is “doing good,” McPeek said. “She’s right and she’s ready.”

Coincidentally, both McPeek entrants drew the rail for Saturday.

Trainer Al Stall Jr. Covers Terrain, ‘Star’ and ‘Charlie’ Friday

Is the third time the charm for trainer Al Stall Jr. in Saturday’s $600,000 Grade II Louisiana Derby?

After saddling My Pal Charlie to finish second behind Pyro last year’s Louisiana Derby, and Ketchikan to be runner-up behind Circular Quay in the 2007 renewal, can Stall break that streak and pose in the winner’s circle with Adele Dilschneider’s Terrain following Saturday’s 96th running?

“At his best, he’s good enough to win this race,” said Stall Friday morning during training hours, “and everything is on schedule with him right now. We’re happy with the horse. It’s time to run him. We’ll see if he needs a race, but we’ll be looking for him to move forward and take things from there.”

Stall also will saddle both Brittlyn Stables’ Star Guitar, 20-1 in the morning line, and B.Wayne Hughes’ My Pal Charlie, 8-1 in the morning line, in Saturday’s Grade II New Orleans Handicap for older horses. Unfortunately, that duo drew the two outside posts respectively in the 14-horse field.

“It’s a racing rarity that we could draw the two outside posts in a field this size,” Stall said, “but that’s how this game is. Obviously, both horses will need good trips.

“If Star Guitar were to win, (owner) Evelyn (Benoit) would go absolutely wild,” said Stall of the Louisiana-bred who will be running in open company for the first time, “and as for My Pal Charlie, he looks ready to run his race as well.”

It would not be unprecedented for a state-bred to capture Fair Grounds’ signature race for older horses. Scott’s Scoundrel, one of two Louisiana-bred equine millionaires, won the race in 1996 at odds of 8.20-1.

Apprentice Jockey Anna Roberts Makes Picture-Perfect Debut

Apprentice jockey Anna Roberts, a graduate of the North American Racing Academy founded by Hall of Famer Chris McCarron and daughter of Eclipse Award-winning photographer Lynn Roberts, rode the first race of her career Thursday in Fair Grounds’ seventh race, finishing seventh aboard longshot Code of Honour.

The 20-year-old Roberts, a 2006 graduate of Franklinton (La.) High School, broke Code of Honour alertly and quickly moved in toward the rail from the No. 11 post position in the two-turn grass test and made the pace most of the way before her mount – a 16-1 longshot – weakened in the final furlong.

McCarron, who was at Turfway doing an autograph signing, didn’t get to see the race live but watched the race on replay.

“He said I did really well,” Roberts said later.

One who was all out to do her own job as well was her mother Lynn Roberts, who assists longtime Fair Grounds track photographer Lou Hodges Jr. Lynn Roberts normally shoots from the inside rail, but because Hodges was not at Fair Grounds on Thursday, she was in his regular spot at the finish line.

“Two turns on the turf for her first race,” Lynn Roberts said of her daughter’s debut. “I had to keep telling myself, ‘get the winner – get the winner.’

“I got (a picture of) her (Anna) the first time by,” said the elder Roberts. “She was on the outside, so it was easy. But I was thrilled and I was terrified at the same time. I can’t think of any other words to describe it. I’m still shaking, but not as bad as I was while the race was running.”

Anna Roberts – like the old song says, “a neat and petite little tintype of her mother” – is currently working in the mornings for trainer Al Stall Jr. and evenings as a waitress while pursuing her preferred career as a jockey.