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Noble Bird Tops Field of Familiar Foes in New Orleans Handicap

Mack Oxley and Broman Fostock’s Noble Bird and Gunpowder Farms and West Point Thoroughbreds’ Breaking Lucky get a bit of class relief in Saturday’s Grade II $400,000 New Orleans Handicap, topping the 1 1/8-miles event after finishing sixth and eighth, respectively, behind world champion Arrogate in January’s Grade I Pegasus World Cup Invitational. The pair will take on eight others in the meet’s handicap division centerpiece, including local surface-loving heavyweights Eagle, International Star,Hawaakom, Mo Tom and Honorable Duty. The New Orleans Handicap kicks off a $150,000 guaranteed all-stakes Pick-4 that covers the day’s four Grade II stakes races, culminating in the Grade II Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby.

When Mark Casse-trained Noble Bird is at his best, he is borderline freakish. Such is evident in a glance at his past performances, which are highlighted by four sporadic eye-opening performances over his last 12 races, each separated by a series of mediocre showings. His graded victories include a brave neck victory over Lea and Hoppertunity in 2015’s Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs, a 11¼-length romp in last May’s Grade III Pimlico Special Handicap at its namesake course and a 5¾-length mopping of the Keeneland main track with Divining Rod and Hawaakom in the Grade III Fayette Stakes last October. The sizable 6-year-old son of Birdstone will be ridden for the first time by Fair Grounds’ leading jockey Florent Geroux when they break from post nine.

Breaking Lucky (Luis Contreras, rail), a classic winner as a sophomore in Canada for trainer Reade Baker, need only return to his form when a strong second to Gun Runner in November’s Grade I Clark Handicap and a fourth — beaten only a neck — in September’s Grade I Woodward Stakes behind Shaman Ghost to be extremely tough to beat. No stranger to a few of these, he will face Noble Bird for the fourth time in the last 12 months, while also crossing form lines with Eagle and Hawaakom on multiple occasions.

William S. Farish’s Eagle (Brian Hernandez, Jr., post 10) likely needed his race last out in February’s Grade III Mineshaft Handicap, when finishing fourth behind Honorable Duty and International Star in what was his first start since July. He will look to return to the form that saw him gamely defeat Noble Bird and Breaking Lucky into filling out the trifecta in last April’s Grade III Ben Ali Stakes at Keeneland.

Honorable Duty (James Graham, post four) is undefeated in two starts, both local stakes, since being gelded. Flying the high-percentage banner of David Ross’ DARRS, Inc., the Brendan Walsh trainee has every right to keep winning and should be a tougher customer for his rivals than when he finished behind Noble Bird and Hawaakom — but ahead of Breaking Lucky — in October’s Lukas Classic at Churchill Downs.

Both G M B Racing’s Mo Tom (Robby Albarado, post eight) and Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey’s International Star (Tyler Gaffalione, post three) should improve in their second starts off layoffs and have shown affinities for the Fair Grounds main track with graded stakes victories. Mo Tom was quick to get back to work for trainer Tom Amoss, working just a week after his sixth in the Mineshaft and stringing together a quartet of strong drills in the five-week break. International Star, the 2015 Grade II Louisiana Derby winner, may have won the Mineshaft with a clearer path, but must put a five-race losing streak to rest.

Stephan Smoot and trainer Wes Hawley’s Hawaakom (Miguel Mena, post six) will get the services of jockey Miguel Mena, who was named on him in lieu of International Star, but such speaks to his rock-solid current form. Already a meet stakes winner in January’s Louisiana Stakes, he was second last out to Gun Runner in the Grade III Razorback Handicap prior to that rival running second in last weekend’s Group I Dubai World Cup.

Last out stakes winner Iron Fist (David Flores, post two), multiple turf graded stakes-placed Roman Approval (Rajiv Maragh, post seven) — who is cross-entered into the Grade II Muniz Memorial — and well-bred longshot Aglimpseofgabby (C. J. McMahon, post five), who has lit up the work tab with two consecutive sub-48 second drills, complete the field.

Throughout the eight-stakes, 15-race card, Louisiana-breds take the stage for a triad of added-money events. The mile and 70-yard $75,000 Crescent City Oaks features Brittlyn Stables’ divisional leader Mr. Al’s Gal (Richard Eramia, post four), who has racked up the dough by winning three consecutive state-bred events by a combined 21 lengths. The Justin Jeansonne trainee takes on 11 others, including chief rival Our Millie (Mitchell Murrill, post six), who wheels back on two weeks’ rest for Marble Farms and trainer Joseph Foster and has yet to finish out of the exacta in six starts. Our Millie is also the only filly to defeat Mr. Al’s Gal in her five lifetime starts.

The remainder of the field is comprised of Sashimi Blaster (Gerard Melancon, rail), What’s the Point (Shaun Bridgmohan, post two), Moonlightnmidnight (Florent Geroux, post three), D’wild Muffin (Ashley Broussard, post five), Madame Begue (Kerwin Clark, post seven), My Gal Layla (Roberto Morales, post eight), E Z’s All Attitude (Colby Hernandez, post nine), Bermuda Star (Robby Albarado, post 10), Naughty Little Nun (James Graham, post 11) and Rose Guitar (Diego Saenz, post 12).

The Pelican State-bred boys take the stage in the $75,000 Crescent City Derby over 1 1/16 miles on the main track. Topped by Mallory Greiner’s Chris Richard-trained class dropper Underpressure (Brian Hernandez, Jr., post 13), the sophomore event drew a full field of 14.

Last out, Underpressure faced open foes in two-turn allowance company, including stakes-bound Resiliency and highly regarded Excitations. The chestnut son of Birdstone impressively outclassed many of these going a two-turn mile at Delta Downs on Premier Night, winning the $100,000 Prince by a widening two lengths. In that event, he defeated runner-up Magic Vow (Jose Valdivia, Jr., post five), who again appears to be the main threat when he breaks from a much more ideal post than his rival.

The remainder of the field is comprised of Jack Snipe’s (Francisco Torres, rail), Set Hut (Hector Santiago, post two), Paddy O’Lionel (Mitchell Murrill, post three), Ida’s Warrior (Sophie Doyle, post four), Amp’d Up (Miguel Mena, post six), Big Maurice (Richard Eramia, post seven), Freakonthelead (Gerard Melancon, post eight), Imindycatbirdseat (James Graham, post nine), Tip Tap Tapizar (Florent Geroux, post 10), True Emperor (Jose Riquelme, post 11), Rollwithit (Diego Saenz, post 12) and Evan Lee G (Chris Rosier, post 14).

Immediately following the four graded stakes, including the Grade II $1,000,000 TwinSpires.com  Louisiana Derby (Race 11), is the $60,000 Costa Rising Stakes for Louisiana-bred grass sprinters going 5½ furlongs on the Stall-Wilson turf course. The final of the day’s eight stakes, it features another chance for Dare to Dream Stable’s defending champion Jockamo’s Song (Mitchell Murrill, post 11) to add to his already impressive record for trainer Mike Stidham. The gray son of Half Ours tops 11 others in this highly competitive event.

The trio of charges who finished immediately behind Jockamo’s Song in a Mar. 2 course and distance allowance prep may possibly be his chief rivals. Roy Investments’ Velton Vidrine-trained Rock N Sake (Shaun Bridgmohan, post two), came charging late last out to quickly diminish the winner’s margin, just as he did in the same conditions four weeks prior behind Whispering Oaks Farm’s Steve Flint-trained Eden Grey’s Kitten (Florent Geroux, post seven), who would go on to finish third last out after an inside trip. Better trips could assist either of those in defeating the poorly drawn favorite. The one to catch will likely be Joseph Scott Niolet’s Judy Behler-trained Brilliant Interest, who retreated to a length behind Eden Grey’s Kitten in fourth after zipping through swift fractions.

The remainder of the field is comprised of Afro Blue (Colby Hernandez, post three), Icy Gentleman (Juan Guzman, post four), Just Kissing Buck (Gerard Melancon, post five), Hail to the Nile (Francisco Torres, post six), Jazzy Rebel (Brian Hernandez, Jr., post eight), My Friend Flavin (Robby Albarado, post nine), Nubin Ridge (Ashley Broussard, post 10) and Hunker Down (C. J. McMahon, post 12).