Wilkinson Wins Grade III Lecomte Stakes on Road to the Derby Kickoff Day

Trainer Neil Howard had indicated that Gaillardia Racing’s Wilkinson may have been a little flat when he finished third in his last race at Fair Grounds on New Year’s Day, but the sophomore son of 1999 Belmont Stakes winner Lemon Drop Kid was sharp as a sword Saturday afternoon at the New Orleans oval when he captured the Grade III Lecomte Stakes by a head from the game pacesetter Pants On Fire, Aqueduct’s Count Fleet Stakes winner owned by George and Lori Hill.

Ridden by Garrett Gomez, Wilkinson was allowed to settle early along the inside, responded to the urgings of 2009’s Eclipse Award-winning jockey in the late stages while still along the rail and got up in the last strides in the highlight of Fair Grounds’ Road to the Derby Kickoff Day Presented by Hotel Monteleone.

Fair Grounds three-race sophomore series will continue with the Grade II Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 19 and conclude with the 98th running of the $1 million Grade II Louisiana Derby on March 26.

“I think all of us with these 3-year-olds are thinking about those races,” said Howard in the winner’s circle after Wilkinson’s score when asked about the rest of the local series. “If the colt keeps doing well I am sure we would like to (go on to the Louisiana Derby). I’d say we are pointing to it but I will talk to Mr. Gaylord (owner of Gaillardia Racing) and we’ll figure out what we want to do.”

Wilkinson toured the mile and 40-yard distance of the Lecomte in 1:40.97, increased his career earnings to $105,490 with his second win in five lifetime starts and returned mutuels of $8, $3.40 and $4.60 as the third choice of the fans.

“He’s still learning how to run but he pays attention,” said Gomez. “Neil just told me to have confidence in this horse so I did.”

Pants On Fire was gallant in defeat, establishing early fractions of 24.82 and 48.94 and finishing five lengths in front of third-place runner Action Ready, owned by Wayne Sanders and Larry Hirsch.

“Honestly, I take my hat off to (Wilkinson),” said Pants On Fire’s jockey Joe Bravo. “That was a lot of effort.  My horse was there and he ran hard. It was a great horse race.”

Pants On Fire paid $3.20 and $4.80 and Action Ready returned $6.20 to show. Even-money favorite Justin Phillip, owned by Zayat Stables, bobbled at the break, was somewhat rank during the running and faded at the top of the stretch.

Racing resumes Sunday at Fair Grounds with a 10-race program beginning at 12:40 p.m.