The Lecomte Stakes has forever been a blush of springtime hope in the middle of winter. It is always looked at as being loaded with so much potential that it is impossible not to stop and smell the promise of roses.
Here we go again with Saturday’s $200,000 Grade 3 points prep for the Kentucky Derby. Mandaloun brings in a 2-for-2 record for presumptive trainer of the year Brad Cox. Midnight Bourbon, Red N Wild and Arabian Prince finished in the money in their previous Derby preps. Game Day Play is already a stakes winner.
It is the annual ritual. Look at the full field racing at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Tout it as being deep in talent. Then sit back this spring and watch as others from around the country pass these horses and collect the big prizes.
Nothing like a dose of history to throw cold water on a hot-looking horse race.
In all its runnings since it was restricted to 3-year-olds starting in 1962, the Lecomte has produced exactly one Kentucky Derby winner – War Emblem in 2002.
There have been close calls since. Hard Spun in 2007 and Golden Soul in 2013 came through the Bayou on the way to second-place finishes in the Derby. War Of Will notably won both the Lecomte and Preakness two years ago just as Oxbow had in 2013. Otherwise, the January test in Louisiana has been a proving ground for regional talent more than it has been a bellwether for the classics.
Yet there is a lesson to be learned from most of the successful exceptions. Think about what War Emblem, Hard Spun, War of Will and Oxbow had in common. They were either pacesetters or stalkers, a style that is more suited to the classics than it is to a wintertime race on a track with a seemingly unending 1,346-foot homestretch.
Since 2000, there have been 22 horses that started in both the Lecomte and the Derby. Of those, 15 did not show their speed until the second halves of their races. Last year’s winner Enforceable was a microcosm, a deep closer that overcame a pedestrian pace to power home at the Fair Grounds by 1½ lengths. Nearly eight months later that style did not translate at Churchill Downs, where he finished seventh.
At least one Derby starter has come out of 12 of the last 14 runnings of the Lecomte, but the style for most of those 18 horses did not fit well against faster competitors from across the country.
A stark fact about the Fair Grounds is that its current points preps – the Lecomte, Risen Star and Louisiana Derby – have produced only four Kentucky Derby winners – Black Gold in 1924, Grindstone in 1996, War Emblem in 2002 and the controversially promoted Country House in 2019. Current preps at Gulfstream Park, Keeneland and Oaklawn Park, the other big tracks in that quadrant of the nation, have produced a combined 82.
That does not mean the Lecomte will be a bad betting race. Not with 11 horses entered, including five coming off now-forbidden Lasix and three that have experience going the 8½ furlongs that the Lecomte became with its lengthening last year.
Bet down to 40-1 at Circa Sports and 35-1 at William Hill Nevada in Kentucky Derby futures, Mandaloun (3-1 morning line) must use his mid-pack style negotiate two turns for the first time and overcome post 10, which Enforceable did last year. It is also his first time in stakes company. Strong speed ratings from his November allowance win at Churchill Downs are an asset, and so are his connections. Cox was 13-for-55 coming into this week at the current Fair Grounds meet, and Florent Geroux’s win percentage of 28.6 was the best among jockeys with more than a handful of rides.
Trainer Mike Stidham entered the Godolphin colt Proxy (6-1), a pacesetting 2-for-2 at the Fair Grounds, and Manor House (8-1), a 12-length debut winner last month at Laurel Park that was cross-entered into an allowance race on Saturday’s undercard.
After his father, Mark, won the Lecomte the last two years, trainer Norman Casse carries the family name with Beep Beep (12-1), a winning favorite in his only start Nov. 29 at Churchill Downs. This Tapizar colt owned by Marylou Whitney’s estate and ridden by Joe Talamo could challenge Proxy for the early lead.
Game Day Play (20-1) is a gelding that was a seven-furlong stakes winner in October at Remington Park, but trainer Bret Calhoun has had him idle from races since. Arabian Prince (6-1) might not have the style that suits the Derby, but he was able to close into a noteworthy third-place finish Thanksgiving weekend in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs. Drawing the rail, Midnight Bourbon (7-2) tries to prove he merits Derby consideration after he finished 14 lengths in third behind Jackie’s Warrior and Reinvestment Risk in the Grade 1 Champagne three months ago at Belmont Park. Santa Cruiser (6-1) may be only a maiden winner, but he carries a strong speed rating from that mile victory two months ago at Churchill Downs.
My ticket will be keyed to Game Day Play, presuming his new jockey Gabriel Sáez has him positioned to get a decisive first run on the leaders turning for home. In spite of his poor draw Mandaloun should be there at the end, too. And it is hard to leave off Arabian Prince, the quintessential, deep-closing Lecomte runner.
If a horse that is forwardly placed should win the Lecomte, that ought to carry a lot more weight in Derby futures than a run-of-the-mill closer accomplishing the same thing. Whether bettors take heed is another matter. What is the old line about not learning from history?
Racing notes and opinions
From the “oh, no, not again” folder: Barring an unforeseen end to 15 months of stubbornness, Oaklawn Park will not be on offer to horseplayers through Nevada racebooks. A track spokeswoman confirmed to VSiN that no deal is in place for the meet that starts next Friday. It goes back to the wearisome impasse between the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association and Churchill Downs Inc. Although the Cella family has owned Oaklawn Park for four generations, CDI acquired the rights to negotiate the track’s interstate pari-mutuel contracts. “I can confirm that CDI negotiates our signal, and (we) are currently not in Vegas,” Oaklawn spokeswoman Jennifer Hoyt wrote in an email. The one ray of hope is that the refusal of the two sides to speak to one another is apparently over. One of two Las Vegas sources who spoke to VSiN said, “We are communicating at least.” Since the CDI standoff began in October 2019, Churchill Downs, the Fair Grounds, Turfway Park and Arlington Park have all been rendered legally unavailable to Nevada bettors. So, too, have smaller tracks, some of which are paying CDI to be their negotiating agent. The only exception came in September, when casinos booked the Kentucky Derby and Oaks on their own, honoring track mutuels at their risk but putting strict limits on the options and potential winnings available to bettors.
With thoughts about the relationship with Churchill Downs and response to criticism that the odds are too conservative, William Hill US CEO Joe Asher provides insight into the making of Kentucky Derby futures in a rare interview for the new episode of the Ron Flatter Racing Pod. The conversation was also detailed in a story for Horse Racing Nation.
The death Tuesday of Prince Khalid Abdullah, 85, not only evoked tributes, but it raised questions. He built Juddmonte Farms into one of the biggest forces in racing and in breeding, producing champions like Arrogate, Frankel, Empire Maker, Enable and Dancing Brave. His lieutenants, notably Garrett O’Rourke in America and Lord Teddy Grimthorpe in Europe, are two of the most charismatic executives running any stable. Yet there has been no public outlining of Juddmonte’s future. Since His Highness passed away only this week, it would be untoward to expect answers right away, even if the questions came naturally. James Delahooke, a big name in bloodstock circles who worked for Prince Khalid in the ’70s and ’80s, told Racing Post, “As long as it’s run by horsemen and not by accountants, Juddmonte will continue to thrive and prosper.”
Add Prince Khalid: Juddmonte Farms bred and owns Mandaloun, offering a sentimental angle for the Lecomte and, who knows, maybe for the Derby trail.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod at VSiN.com/podcasts. William Hill US CEO Joe Asher talks about the making of Kentucky Derby futures, trainer Michael Stidham discusses Manor House and Proxy on Saturday’s Lecomte Stakes card, and DraftKings Sportsbook’s Johnny Avello handicaps weekend races. The RFRP is available for download and free subscription at Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.