By Ryan Martin

Heavy rain forced the Woodchopper and Pago Hop Stakes on to a sloppy main track and the result of both events proved that there were worse places to be than on the lead.

In the Woodchopper Stakes, John C. Oxley’s Noble Commander ($16.80, $8.40 and $6.00) took the field gate to wire and was able to return to his winning ways. In addition, he gave jockey Jerome Lermyte his first victory at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots in doing so.

Trained by Mark Casse, the 3-year-old son of Forestry broke from the rail under Lermyte and led the field in fractions of 23.82, 47.50 1:12.34 and 1:25.32. Once asked at the quarter pole, he responded in winning fashion and drew off to win by 1¾ lengths in a time of 1:39.16. Marzo ($9.80 and $5.80) stalked Noble Commander all throughout the one mile journey and finished second while Ballard High ($5.20) rounded out the trifecta.

Completing the order of finish were Lusitano, Reride, McFeely, G’s Turn, Zero Gravity, Call West and Twoko Bay.

“I drew the rail so I wanted to use that to my advantage,” Lermyte said. “I went to the lead and no one really bothered me up front. My horse was relaxed enough and I just wanted to save enough to get first on the wire.”

Lermyte is quite familiar with the New Orleans oval having spent the past few winters at the Fair Grounds working for Casse as well as acquiring numerous mounts. This summer, he scored seven stakes victories at Woodbine.

“It’s awesome. This is my first win at the Fair Grounds and for my boss Mark it’s just lovely,” Lermyte said. “They’re a great team. I had a great time at Woodbine. I won seven stakes and it was a great experience. The Casse team are great people. Everything is well done and is top level which makes the job much easier.”

Noble Commander scored his second career stakes victory in the Woodchopper Stakes. In his second career start, he won the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Sophomore Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in March.

“The credit to (Casse Training Center Farm Trainer) Mitch Downs,” said David Carroll, who oversees Casse’s string of horses at Fair Grounds. “They shipped him in here beautifully a couple of days ago. He looks the best that I’ve ever seen him look and it came off the turf and speed is his weapon. Jerome rode him beautifully and judged the pace and the horse responded.”

Carroll was happy to give Lermyte his first Fair Grounds victory.

“He’s a very good friend of mine and he’s done a terrific job for us at Woodbine these past couple of years,” Carroll said. “He’s just grown into his role in the barn. Mark has been very supportive of him so for him to come down here and get his first win at the Fair Grounds is very special for all of us.”

Noble Commander enhanced his career earnings to $143,843 after the Woodchopper and has a lifetime record of 6-3-0-1. He was purchased for $235,000 from the Fasig-Tipton Florida Select Two-Year-Olds In Training Sale in March 2017. He was bred in Florida by GoldMark Farm and is out of the Indian Charlie broodmare Indian Carlie, who is a half-sister to Grade I winner Marley’s Freedom.

Two races later in the Pago Hop Stakes, Breeze Easy’s Pretty Lady fired from off the bench at 17-1 odds giving trainer Joe Sharp and jockey Adam Beschizza their second stakes victory on the Saturday program.

The 3-year-old daughter of Scat Daddy set the pace on the inside and produced slow opening fractions of 24.14 47.94 and 1:12.77, but her leading margins slimmed down as the race progressed. At the top of the stretch, 65-1 longshot Roussalka drew even with Pretty Lady as Cool Beans joined the duo on the outside. The trio of sophomore fillies hit the wire together, but Pretty Lady had enough left to score her third career win in a time of 1:39.23. Cool Beans finished a head behind in second, a nose ahead of Rossalka who took the show spot.

“I thought that the best plan was to just go forward and make every draw a winning one,” Beschizza said. “It’s lucky we had the first wire to get us home and she just held on. She hasn’t run in nine months so she had probably run a bit fresh there. She’s a very nice filly so hopefully we can get her back on the green stuff and go from there.”

The Pago Hop was Pretty Lady’s first start for the Sharp barn. She previously raced for Mark Casse.

“We really didn’t know what to expect with the race being on the slop but the filly had been training real forward,” Sharp said. “I know the owners had thought based on her works thought that it would be worth a try on the dirt so obviously the trip worked out and Adam did a good job on getting her in a comfortable spot.”

A Pago Hop victory brought Pretty Lady’s lifetime earnings up to $107,113 and was her third career win. Her other two victories took place at Fair Grounds last meet. Saturday’s triumph was her first start since a fifth-place finish in the Allen “Black Cat” LaCombe Memorial Stakes in March.

The highest priced stakes winner so far this meet, Pretty Lady rewarded her backers with payouts of 37.80,

11.00 and 7.40 while Cool Beans returned $3.80 and $3.20. Roussalaka paid $14.20.

Remember Daisy, Hint of Mint, Santino, Starving Artist, Youvegottapaytopla and Memorial Drive rounded out the order of finish.

Bred in Kentucky by Merriebelle Stable, Pretty Lady was a $550,000 purchase from the Fasig-Tipton Florida Select Two-Year-Olds In Training Sale in March 2017 where she was consigned by Hartley/DeRenzo Thoroughbreds. She is out of the Smart Strike broodmare Classic Strike and is a full-sister to two-time graded stakes winning millionaire Handsome Mike. Pretty Lady is also a half-sibling to Grade I winner Union Strike.