Home of the Louisiana Derby

FAIR GROUNDS FOCUS: Road to Louisiana Derby Day 2015 - Vol. 4



Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey’s Mike Maker-trained INTERNATIONAL STAR and Loooch Racing and Chris Dunn’s Tom Amoss-trained WAR STORY (both below) displayed their class in last month’s Grade III $200,000 Lecomte Stakes when finishing first and second, but such apparently was not sufficient to make either the favorite in the Grade II $400,000 Risen Star Stakes – even with the defection of one of the expected favorites in Donald Dizney’s homebred Todd Pletcher trainee J S BACH a day prior to the 1 1/16-miles event.  Sent off at just under 4-1 as the second- and third-choice, respectively, International Star and War Story once again displayed their superiority when taking residence in an exacta that paid a healthy $42.20.

Favored IMPERIA checked in a dull fifth in an effort that can either be excused by the need for a race, as he had been out since November, or that he is simply a turf horse who ran well once on the dirt when second in the Grade II $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club.  Said son of Medaglia d’Oro’s plan was to come back to New Orleans had he run well, but that strategy is on hold for now.  Maker and Amoss, on the other hand, have made it known that they plan on aiming their charges for the meet centerpiece Grade II $750,000 Louisiana Derby on Mar. 28.

Two others who may return are Donegal Racing’s KEEN ICE, who ran impeccably when closing from last under James Graham to finish third, and Altamira Racing Stable and David Bernsen’s ST. JOE BAY, who finished a head behind him.  Both were beaten just under three lengths.  Keen Ice, a son of Curlin, is moving forward for trainer Dale Romans, who mentioned before the race that a positive performance will likely earn the long-striding colt a return to New Orleans.  Peter Miller, who trains St. Joe Bay, was pleased with his front-running colt’s performance – especially since he was pressured throughout and held well under Florent Geroux – and mentioned that a return on Mar. 28 was not out of the question.

Disappointments from the Risen Star included Fox Hill Farm’s Larry Jones-trained BLUFF (above) and Mike McCarty’s Steve Asmussen-trained TIZNOW R J, who finished sixth and seventh, respectively.  Neither had an excuse and both failed to fire for their well-respected connections. 

The Louisiana Derby picked up a new probable when Zayat Stable announced that its MR. Z (below) will be aimed for the race.  Trained by incomparable Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, the son of Malibu Moon has finished third in three consecutive two-turn stakes, including a photo-finish decision in the Grade I $500,000 Los Alamitos Futurity in December.  The 102nd running of the Louisiana Derby may also attract a starter out of Saturday’s grassy $60,000 Black Gold Stakes, as two of its top competitors – Rigney Racing’s Phil Bauer-trained ANOTHER LEMON DROP and Holmark Stable’s Richie Scherer-trained BOURBON COWBOY – have proven main track form.  At 7½ furlongs on the grass, the Black Gold was expected to draw Klaravich Stables and William Lawrences’s two-time turf winner at the meet (and three times overall) WIRELESS FUTURE, but the would-be favorite opted for the Grade II $550,000 Spiral Stakes over the Polytrack at Turfway Park on Mar. 21.

Trainer Keith Desormeaux has mentioned that his TEXAS RED, whom he owns in partnership with Erich Braugh et al, is recovering well from the hoof abcess that withdrew him from planned Risen Star participation.  The Cajun conditioner, who also runs a Fair Grounds string, mentioned that in addition to the Grade I $1,000,000 Arkansas Derby on April 11 and Grade I $1,000,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 4, that the Louisiana Derby was not out of the question – though such may be wishful thinking for all Pelican State parties involved.


Fletcher and Carolyn Gray’s I’M A CHATTERBOX went from a prime candidate for a bounce to bouncing all over her opposition a second time when shifting strategies and closing from last in the Grade III $175,000 Rachel Alexandra Stakes.  In a style that almost mocked her rivals in its disparity from her eight-length gate-to-wire romp in the Listed $125,000 Silverbulletday Stakes five weeks prior, the daughter of Munnings not only made herself the favorite for the Fair Grounds meet centerpiece for sophomore fillies, the Grade II $400,000 Fair Grounds Oaks, but also earned enough ‘street cred’ to garner an 8-1 odds line in the Kentucky Oaks Future Wager.

The husband and wife training team of Larry and Cindy Jones also finished second in the Rachel Alexandra with Brereton C. Jones’ LOVELY MARIA (above), who made a valiant move at the top of the stretch to seize the lead from the third Jones-trained competitor, Calumet Farm’s WHITE CLOVER, only to lose by 2½ lengths after chasing a legitimate pace of :23.19 and :46.98.  While I’m a Chatterbox exited the event in fine form and moves forward to Mar. 28, such is not certain for Lovely Maria, who may wait another week for the Grade I $500,000 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland, where she may be joined by another stablemate, Tommy Ligon and Michael Pressley’s DIVINE DAWN.

Aside from the overflowing filly fountain that is the Jones barn, another excellent performance was that of Charles Fipke homebred FOREVER UNBRIDLED, who once again proved her class when finishing a game third – a neck behind Lovely Maria – while four-wide on both turns.  A big, rangy filly, the Dallas Stewart-trained daughter of Kentucky Oaks winner Lemons Forever is likely to take another stab at I’m a Chatterbox in the Fair Grounds Oaks after also finishing a distant second behind her in the Silverbulletday.  Stewart was quick to point out after the race that the eight lengths by which his filly lost five weeks prior shrunk to just under three this time around and he hopes the lightly raced daughter of Unbridled’s Song keeps closing the gap as she traipses toward possibly emulating her dam on the first Friday in May. 

Two well-regarded gray fillies who ran poorly in the Rachel Alexandra and now may or may not persist on to the Fair Grounds Oaks are Regis Racing’s Steve Asmussen-trained SHOOK UP and Gary and Mary West’s WEST COAST BELLE, who finished a length apart in fifth and sixth.  Both had every chance to become a factor and announce themselves as serious Kentucky Oaks candidates going into the race, but unfortunately each left an impression as cloudy as their coats.


Last Saturday’s Grade III $125,000 Mineshaft Handicap not only produced a thrilling finish, but for many derived an unexpected one when Anstu Stable’s STREET BABE (below) – at 21-1 – ran down Jed Cohen’s 17-1 Argentinian Group I winner MYSTERY TRAIN in the final sixteenth.  Trained by former Todd Pletcher assistant Michael Dilger, Street Babe was making only the third start of his career and the hulking son of Street Sense relished every foot of Fair Grounds’ famously long stretch.  According to Dilger, the dark bay gelding is likely to return for the Fair Grounds handicap division’s marquee race, the Grade II $400,000 New Orleans Handicap on Mar. 28. 

Likely to join him is his game, but defeated, Darrell Vienna-trained rival Mystery Train (below).  Carving out impressive fractions – including a sharp half-mile in :46.97, the two-time Group I winner returned to good form after three flops in California in top company.  He is now slated to return, if all goes well, according to his conditioner, who cited that the Fair Grounds main track is much more similar to those to which the eight-time winner was accustomed in Argentina. 

Third in the Mineshaft, Twin Creeks Racing Stables’ 8-5 beaten favorite RED RIFLE (below) is possible to return on Mar. 28, but for which race is not certain.  A stakes winner on both dirt and turf who requires a distance of ground to be at his best, it would not be a surprise to see the son of Giant’s Causeway return to the grass in the Grade II $400,000 Mervin H. Muniz, Jr. Memorial Handicap in lieu of the New Orleans.  A length astern said Pletcher trainee was locally based 11-1 shot COUGAR RIDGE, who ran admirably despite a big step up in class from allowance optional claiming company for JBL Thoroughbreds and trainer Doug Matthews. 

The disappointment of the Mineshaft was Donegal Racing’s Wayne Catalano-trained 4-1 second choice IRISH YOU WELL (below), a massive horse making his first start since August who likely needed the race for fitness purposes.  Fourth in the Grade I $1,000,000 Haskell Invitational in his prior start, the son of Broken Vow made a brief bid at the top of the stretch but flattened out under Florent Geroux.  The emblazoned chestnut is definitely one to watch if he returns in five weeks’ time for the New Orleans.         

Aside from the Mineshaft, other notable older horses to keep an eye in moving toward the New Orleans include the Louisiana-bred duo of Brittlyn Stable’s Ron Faucheux-trained SUNBEAN and Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey’s Joe Sharp-trained ONE KING’S MAN (below). Neither have been confirmed for the New Orleans, but it is on their respective radars after finishing third and first, respectively, in the $200,000 Louisiana Premier Night Championship at Delta Downs on Feb. 7.  Last year, Sunbean was third in the New Orleans behind Eclipse Award finalist Palace Malice, while rival One King’s Man has recently come to career-form for his young and talented conditioner.      

Two Fox Hill Farm-owned older horses from the red-hot barn of Larry Jones recently returned to the track in COUP DE GRACE and NORMANDY INVASION.  The former is closer to a race and currently looking for a sprint to start his campaign, while the latter is recovering from a fractured sesamoid and subsequent surgery this fall and winter and is pointing toward an ambitious Breeders’ Cup-bound campaign for the owner who considers him one of the best ever to wear the red and white Fox Hill quarters.  Last year, Normandy Invasion was a game second in the New Orleans, while multiple graded stakes-winning sprinter Coup de Grace has yet to prove himself around two turns, but his connections plan on attempting such if all goes well this year with the regally bred son of Tapit (also the sire of Normandy Invasion).      

Speaking of last year’s New Orleans and the powerhouse performance of Palace Malice, one must ponder which Pletcher trainee fits the mold of a horse he would possibly send for the New Orleans.  In this, and admittedly based in pure speculation, the immediate candidate is WinStar Farm’s Commissioner.  Second in last year’s Belmont Stakes – which Palace Malice won a year prior – the son of A. P. Indy looked like he needed both of his races thus far this year when finishing third in an allowance and then sixth in the Grade I $500,000 Donn Handicap behind stablemate Constitution.  A long-striding type who may appreciate the aforementioned homestretch of a track like Fair Grounds, it would of little surprise to see him routed to the New Orleans oval for its namesake Handicap. 


The local turf division has become increasingly interesting, especially with the recent progression of locally based Brad Cox trainee CHOCOLATE RIDE (below). A lightly race 5-year-old son of Candy Ride, the bay gelding made his last two starts winning ones at Fair Grounds, including a rousing gate-to-wire tally in the Grade III $125,000 Fair Grounds Handicap over nine grassy furlongs on Feb. 21.  Just two weeks prior, the ex-Mark Casse trainee took an allowance at the same course and distance with aplomb for owner John Wentworth and has improved vastly since being claimed five races ago from a Churchill Downs dirt race.  A charge with troublesome feet, he has flourished this winter under the watchful gaze of Cox’s on-site assistant Ricky Giannini – a horsemen who not only appropriately operates a sweets-serving foodtruck on the side, but also has his pupils serving up victories at a sweet meet-leading 31% on the grass.

Chocolate Ride, according to Cox, will now focus on winning another nine furlong Fair Grounds turf stakes – the Grade II $400,000  Mervin H. Muniz, Jr. Memorial Handicap on Mar. 28, the top turf race of the season.  He will most likely meet the only other horse to win a turf graded stakes this meet – Charlie Smith’s very popular Louisiana-bred STRING KING, who has had the Muniz on his radar since a victory in the Grade III $125,000 Col. E. R. Bradley Handicap on Jan. 17.  Earlier this season, the 7-year-old 15-time winner also took the $100,000 Louisiana Champions Day Turf with ease.  His owner/trainer/breeder Smith has been doing his best to keep the lively son of Crowned King calm as he prepares for yet another assault on New Orleans from his northern Louisiana base. 

The major disappointment in Chocolate Ride’s Fair Grounds Handicap was Calumet Farm’s Neil Drysdale-trained SKYRING (below), who checked in last of 10 as the 5-2 favorite after finishing second by a nose in the same race last year – one race prior to winning the Muniz in gate-to-wire fashion.  Never really involved, the son of English Channel made a lackluster bid around the far turn and then faded badly.  Word is that the often spotty charge is possible to return for the Muniz, despite such. 

Also expected to return is post time second-choice and exciting second-place finisher GLENARD.  Owned and recently purchased from England by Andrew Stone, who owned globetrotting 2012 Grade I Beverly D. winner I’m a Dreamer, the Graham Motion-trained son of Arch skimmed the rail to rally for a strong second in the Fair Grounds in his American debut.  Previously a stayer in Europe running distances ranging from 1½ to 2¼ miles, he seems to be just starting his rally at the nine furlongs of the Fair Grounds.  Still, he is likely to return for the aforementioned connections in the Muniz.        

Two horses who ran well but did not quite sparkle in the Fair Grounds who may return for the Muniz are Bortolazzo Stable’s PYRITE MOUNTAIN from the Florida barn of Todd Pletcher and Gary and Mary West’s locally based Wayne Catalano trainee HIGHBALL (above).  While Pyrite Mountain ran evenly to finish third at a distance slightly below his best, Highball was the bigger disappointment as he had every chance to make an impact at the top of the stretch, but fizzled after tipping out and ranging outside the winner.        

Fair Grounds Focus: Road to Louisiana Derby Day 2015 is a weekly roundup of the equine athletes based at the New Orleans oval – as well as those from out of town – competing in the four major divisions that culminate with the corresponding marquee stakes races of the meet: the Grade II $750,000 Louisiana Derby (3-year-old colts), Grade II $400,000 Fair Grounds Oaks (3-year-old fillies), Grade II $400,000 New Orleans Handicap (handicap division) and Grade II $300,000 Mervin H. Muniz, Jr. Memorial Handicap (turf horses).