Anchoring “Road to the Derby Kickoff Day” at Fair Grounds, Saturday’s $200,000 Lecomte Stakes (G3) pits promising class-climbers against stakes veterans who themselves have something to prove.
The 1 1/16-mile affair offers points toward the Kentucky Derby (G1) on the 10-4-2-1 scale, and paves the way for the richer preps, the Feb. 13 Risen Star (G2) and Mar. 20 TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2).
The Lecomte also kicks off TwinSpires.com’s Kentucky Derby Prep Race $150k Leaderboard Competition. Opt in and place a win bet (at least $25) on the scoring races on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, earn points in tandem with your horses, and compete for prizes including a VIP trip to the Derby. Check out more contest details here.
Mandaloun was always going to be a popular choice, given his unbeaten record for high-profile connections. But he also has a sentimental aspect now. The passing of owner/breeder Khalid Abdullah adds to his appeal for a poignant story line, along with stablemate Sun Path in the preceding Silverbulletday Stakes.
Here are my five points to ponder:
1. Mandaloun is short on price but long on talent.
When a favorite makes his stakes and two-turn debut simultaneously, it’s tempting to strike a contrarian pose. But Mandaloun has won both sprints in a manner of a horse looking for a route of ground. Indeed, trainer Brad Cox said that’s exactly the impression he’s given all along. By Authentic’s sire Into Mischief, he’s out of the Empire Maker mare Brooch, a Group 2 winner who stayed as far as about 1 3/16 miles in Ireland.
Mandaloun gets extra credit for his Keeneland debut, where he turned in a nifty piece of open-field running as though barging his way through an obstacle course. Even more than athleticism, he showed a great mind. Mandaloun actually broke well and raced in the thick of it early. Then he eased back on cue, heeding almost too well as he dropped further through the pack, before responding with as much power as determination to collar a next-out winner in Bob’s Edge.
In his allowance score on the “Stars of Tomorrow II” card at Churchill Downs, Mandaloun had a textbook stalk-and-pounce trip. Although it took him more time to assert, he gained momentum the farther he went. Mandaloun comfortably dispatched Twilight Blue, who came back to finish third in the 6-furlong Sugar Bowl at Fair Grounds. Note that the third-placer in their Nov. 28 allowance, Founder, had beaten highly regarded Highly Motivated in their mutual debut.
2. Whatever Midnight Bourbon did last year was a bonus.
After routing an Ellis Park maiden last summer, Midnight Bourbon looked bound for big things. Settling for minor awards in his two ensuing stakes attempts might have put a damper on the enthusiasm. The context, however, suggests we haven’t seen the best of the Steve Asmussen pupil.
As a son of Tiznow, Midnight Bourbon is entitled to build upon a juvenile campaign that was pretty productive. He stalked a hot pace, and made a sharp move to strike the front in the Iroquois (G3), only to have Sittin on Go close from far back as though shot out of a cannon. (While the winner has let the form down subsequently, it might work out in the end if Sittin on Go reverts to one turn.) Midnight Bourbon stuck to a one-turn mile for the Champagne (G1) and wound up a distant third to stablemate Jackie’s Warrior. Since he uncharacteristically couldn’t keep up with the leaders on the far turn, it’s possible Midnight Bourbon had an excuse for finishing farther behind than might have been expected.
In theory, time and distance should add up to an improved Midnight Bourbon. He could fit the mold of his best half-brother, 2017 Haskell Invitational (G1) hero Girvin, who swept the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby.
3. Arabian Prince can give us a read on the Kentucky Jockey Club.
Third to Keepmeinmind in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2), Arabian Prince hopes to fare better than others coming out of that race. Swill, beaten 4 1/2 lengths in fourth at Churchill, was beaten twice as far by Capo Kane in the Jerome at Aqueduct. Perhaps a less instructive example is Ultimate Badger, unplaced by a double-digit margin in both the Kentucky Jockey Club and the Mucho Macho Man at Gulfstream Park.
On the plus side, Arabian Prince has the profile of a sophomore who can keep grinding his way along the trail. A rare 2-year-old debut winner for Dallas Stewart, he made a long, sustained rally off a hot pace at Churchill. The runner-up in the same off-the-turf maiden was none other than Keepmeinmind, who didn’t have a clear shot on the inside and bulled his way out for second. Keepmeinmind has made relentless progress since that slightly unlucky meeting, placing to Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) before decisively outkicking Arabian Prince last time.
Arabian Prince is eligible to get a better set-up than in his prior stakes tries. Two back, he had no pace support in the Street Sense either and boxed on in a hard-trying fourth. The son of first-crop sire Mshawish has looked a dour type so far, but a stronger pace could put him in a better light.
4. Proxy, Regular Guy, Santa Cruiser offer pedigree power.
Mandaloun isn’t the only stakes firster brandishing a strong pedigree in the Lecomte. Godolphin’s Proxy is a son of Tapit and multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire Panty Raid. That makes him a half-brother to multiple stakes queen Micheline, second in last fall’s Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (G1). Proxy is still green, as evidenced by his drifting out in the stretch. The Mike Stidham trainee has also capitalized on setting a slow pace in both his maiden and allowance wins on this track, and he’ll likely find a different dynamic in play here. I suspect the learning curve might catch him out. In any event, we’ll learn a lot more about him too, and this experience can advance his education.
Regular Guy is anything but ordinary on pedigree. The Bernardini colt is a half-brother to five graded/group performers, two of them millionaires – Carpe Diem, the 2015 Blue Grass (G1) star, and Farrell, successful in the 2017 Fair Grounds Oaks (G2), to name just their signature wins. But Regular Guy has lived up to his name by looking more workmanlike than brilliant. Trained (like Farrell) by Wayne Catalano, the Coffeepot Stables homebred finally broke his maiden at this track and trip, in his fourth attempt. Third that day was Afwan, who had previously placed to Proxy.
Two starts back at Churchill, Regular Guy was just plain outrun by Calumet homebred Santa Cruiser. Being by Dialed In and out of a Tapit mare, Santa Cruiser sports inbreeding to A.P. Indy, and he hails from the family of Colonel John. The Keith Desormeaux runner shaped with promise in his first two starts, placing to Essential Quality on debut and to Swill next out, before changing to front-running tactics in his maiden win. Santa Cruiser grabbed the early lead from Regular Guy, withstood his constant challenge, and pulled away late. With pace factors Manor House and Beep Beep expected to go in Saturday’s 8TH race rather than the Lecomte (according to Daily Racing Form), it should be a little less crowded up front, if still enough speed for a solid tempo.
5. Game Day Play brings collateral form through Super Stock.
If a 5 1/2-furlong maiden from Lone Star has any relevance for the Derby trail, Game Day Play can lay claim to useful collateral form. The Bret Calhoun pupil prevailed in a tussle over Asmussen’s Super Stock, an admirably consistent yardstick who’s since placed third in the Iroquois and Breeders’ Futurity and runner-up in the Street Sense.
Game Day Play has not been as reliable, failing to factor as the 3-5 favorite in the Kip Deville and most recently ending up a late scratch from the Springboard Mile. But in his latest actual race, he rallied to edge Red N Wild in the Oct. 30 Clever Trevor. Red N Wild went on to finish third in the Springboard, leaving a what-if regarding how Game Day Play might have fared. Not that he was liable to cope with the impressive Senor Buscador, but he could have run well enough to advertise himself.
That said, it’s uncertain how effective Game Day Play might be over a route. The Violence gelding is out of a Cuvee half-sister to Grade 3-winning sprinter Maddalena.
For more coverage of Road to the Derby Kickoff Day, see the TwinSpires.com blog plays for the Late Pick 4 ($150,000 Guaranteed Pool, Races 10-13) and Late Pick 5 ($100,000 Guaranteed Pool, Races 9-13).