For a prep race that has produced only one Kentucky Derby winner in its first 39 runnings, this weekend’s Lecomte Stakes has still attracted enough good 3-year-olds to fill a mid-season exhibition of all-stars.
Nine of the 14 horses show up in Derby futures, three have finished in the money in graded stakes, three already have points on the road to Churchill Downs, and two others have black-type victories.
Best of all for horseplayers, morning-line favorite Scabbard (7-2) might actually be an overlay in Saturday’s $200,000 Grade 3 race that is posted for 6:55 p.m. EST at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. The top four finishers in the Lecomte will get points – 10, 4, 2 and 1 – on the road to the Kentucky Derby.
“We knew it would be a full field, but we think he fits with those horses,” Scabbard’s trainer Eddie Kenneally said. “If he runs his race he’ll do well.”
Like all 14 of the 3-year-olds in this race, there is plenty of promise and just enough doubt to create tempting value for just about everything from the rail to the parking lot. Well, maybe not quite that far. Not at a racetrack where there have been no winners outside post 7 in 17 other 8½-furlong races.
“I think if it were (the old distance of) one mile and 70 yards, it would be much worse,” said David Carroll, assistant trainer for Lynn’s Map (6-1), a Mark Casse colt mired in post 14. “It looks like there will be some speed towards the inside. I’d imagine we’ll just have to break well and drop in somewhere and try to get a good trip going into the first turn.”
The pluses and minuses make for quite the menu. To wit:
1. Finnick The Fierce (15-1). The runner-up in the Kentucky Jockey Club with no right eye is stuck on a dead rail.
2. Mr. Monomoy (9-2). Favored in every start, he is 1-for-3 and was second to Lynn’s Map in the slop last month.
3. Perfect Star (30-1). He is 2-for-4 with his only wins coming on the turf. He lost his only dirt start by 9¾ lengths.
4. Scabbard (7-2). Second to Dennis’ Moment in the Iroquois, he finished fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
5. Excession (12-1). This Steve Asmussen colt that needed five tries to break his maiden makes his stakes debut.
6. New Eagle (20-1). The pacesetter gets his fifth jockey. He faded hard to fifth in a sloppy Kentucky Jockey Club.
7. Halo Again (15-1). This $600,000 Asmussen colt sired by Speightstown is 2-for-2 with a Woodbine stakes win.
8. Jack The Umpire (20-1). With blinkers he is 2-for-2. In the slop he is 2-for-2 by an average of seven lengths.
9. Silver State (5-1). Favored in both starts, Asmussen’s $450,000 colt has a 9¾-length win and a runner-up finish.
10. Enforceable (15-1). Florent Geroux takes over on a colt that was third and fourth in two previous Derby preps.
11. Bango (20-1). It took four races for this stakes debutant to break his maiden. He was a beaten favorite twice.
12. Shashashakemeup (20-1). A two-time sprint starter, he has one win, and that was against restricted company.
13. Sycamore Run (6-1). He won a Fair Grounds sprint. Trainer Joe Sharp was 8-for-72 in graded stakes last year.
14. Lynn’s Map (6-1). He is gifted and 2-for-2 at a mile or more. He beat Mr. Monomoy and Excession last month.
There is plenty of early speed in this race. New Eagle has so much that he would appear to be a rabbit. But for whom? His trainer Bill Mott has no other starters in this race. But owner Brad Kelley also has Excession, a Steve Asmussen-trained closer that got his only win two months ago as the betting favorite going 8½ furlongs on a sloppy Churchill Downs course.
Scabbard has also shown the wherewithal to close – and at a high level. He was second to Green Light Go in last summer’s Grade 2 Saratoga Special. In the Grade 3 Iroquois he finished within 1¾ lengths of a then, in-form Dennis’ Moment. And he was gaining ground when he finished fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
“He didn’t care for the (deep Santa Anita) surface too much,” Kenneally said. “That track wasn’t playing well to closers that day. He fought on. The way he finished, the further the better for him. We chose the Lecomte because we think he’ll enjoy the long stretch.”
But Saturday’s race is the same distance as the Juvenile, so firmer surface or not, the Lecomte still might not be long enough for Scabbard and jockey Corey Lanerie.
The winner of the last three training titles at the Fair Grounds, Brad Cox tries for his first Lecomte win by saddling Mr. Monomoy (9-2), another candidate for the early lead.
“I feel like he’s moved forward, and he’ll need to move forward in order to be there with this group,” Cox told VSiN. “We should be able to save some ground (from post 2) in the first turn with a nice stalking position.”
The biggest question with Mr. Monomoy is what really happened in last month’s two-turn allowance in the slop at the Fair Grounds, where he overcame early trouble and took the lead in the stretch. He looked like a winner – until Liam’s Map made a late run to beat him by a head.
“It’s a long stretch at the Fair Grounds,” Cox said. “It can get them, and I think it got him that day. I think he’ll be better suited this second time going two turns.”
In spite of his Hall of Fame credentials and a perennially deep stable, Asmussen has not won the Lecomte in 12 years. He sends Excession and two other colts into Saturday’s race. Silver State is 45-1 in William Hill’s Kentucky Derby futures thanks largely to a 9¾-length debut win against two other in-the-money horses that won their next time out. Halo Again is the most expensive horse in the field and cuts back from a nine-furlong win nearly two months ago on the synthetic track at Woodbine.
Bettors zeroing in on the Asmussen trio will be informed by Ricardo Santana Jr.’s decision to ride Silver State. Colby Hernandez landed on Excession and Joe Talamo on Halo Again. But that is where the exercise in handicapping may be lead to paralysis by analysis.
At some point the choice comes back to a balance between quality and tote-board quantity. That is why I am expecting the odds to be long and attractive for the “other Asmussen” – Halo Again. I plan to key him with Scabbard, Silver State and Excession.
The late odds will ultimately dictate what I do. And so will the weather. The reliability of forecasts this week for New Orleans have been a microcosm of a bad winter for the professional amateurs who call themselves meteorologists. If the heavens open and the track gets sloppy, I may just push all my chips James Holzhauer style onto bona fide mudder Jack The Umpire.
Whatever the case, the Lecomte usually kick-starts the Derby prep season the way that Christmas Day is a jumping-off point for the NBA. But even if none of these horses gets to the gate at Churchill Downs on May 2, so what? The Lecomte (little “c,” by the way) stands on its own as a race of merit, especially with a full, talent-rich field.
Racing notes and opinions
Asmussen’s 3-year-old filly Finite (6-5) is the morning-line favorite for Saturday’s $150,000 Silverbulletday Stakes, a one-mile, 70-yard points prep for the Kentucky Oaks. Now 16-1 in global futures for the Oaks, Finite has won her last three races, most recently the 8½-furlong Grade 2 Golden Rod on Nov. 30 in the slop at Churchill Downs. Cox’s filly Portrait (7-2) has been a favorite all three times she has started but has only the Grade 2 Pocahontas in her win column. Three-time graded-stakes also-ran His Glory (5-1) may set the pace for trainer Tom Amoss in a race bereft of early speed, but if the track is wet, her weaknesses may be exposed. Since she had excuses in her two losses, Portrait will hopefully get a clean trip under Geroux to make for a winning bet. I will include Finite, His Glory and She Can’t Sing (8-1) in exotics. The Silverbulletday is scheduled for Saturday at 6:23 p.m. EST.
The Breeders’ Cup put out a strong, exhaustive report on what happened to Mongolian Groom, the gelding that died after breaking down at Santa Anita in homestretch of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. It runs 25 pages and it is available to anyone at its website. In short it says that veterinarians missed taking action on clues that Mongolian Groom was unfit to race. Although there are details and nuances that are too numerous for this quick take, it boils down to one line written into the summary: “There were opportunities to remove Mongolian Groom from competition that were missed due to time constraints or process deficiencies that could be made more prominent.” The Breeders’ Cup should be commended for preparing such a thorough review in less than 11 weeks. It is too bad that the Los Angeles County district attorney and the California Horse Racing Board could not keep up with that pace, even after having a year to do so.
Oh, back to the top. War Emblem finished fifth in the 2002 Lecomte. He is still the only horse to come out of any running of that race to win the Kentucky Derby. War Of Will won it last year and later won the Preakness, so let the arguments ensue about whether he would have won the Derby if not for the Maximum Security chain reaction.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. The current episode features 2012 National Horseplayers Championship winner Michael Beychok handicapping Saturday’s Lecomte and Silverbulletday stakes at the Fair Grounds, and trainer Brad Cox discussing his 3-year-old prospects and the return of former Eclipse winner Monomoy Girl. There will be a handicappers pop-up episode of the podcast on Thursday with Chris Andrews, Johnny Avello, Vinny Magliulo, Patrick McQuiggan and Dave Tuley handicapping every horse in the Pegasus World Cup and Pegasus World Cup Turf. The RFRP is also available via Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and is sponsored by Xpressbet.