There are Kentucky Derby preps. There are better Kentucky Derby preps. And then there are outliers that are off the charts.
So how did Saturday’s Lecomte Stakes get to be so damned good?
“From the standpoint of our racing office it’s very lucky,” Fair Grounds track announcer John G. Dooley said. “Depth-wise this renewal looks like it’s going to be one of the better ones.”
But seriously, this big field looks more like something we might see in late March, not January. If the Kentucky Derby is horse racing’s answer to the Final Four, then this is a sudden case of the Maui Invitational breaking out in New Orleans.
Two other Derby preps – Saturday’s redrawn Jerome at Aqueduct and Monday’s Smarty Jones at Oaklawn Park – are also coming this holiday weekend. But those two ungraded stakes pale by comparison to the Lecomte.
Undefeated front-runner Principe Guilherme (5-2) is the morning-line favorite, but strong cases may be made for many of the 13 horses – including nine shippers – that are entered for the $200,000 Grade 3 race Saturday at 6:03 p.m. EST. Considering this field includes a colt that hit the board in a prep that looks better with each passing day, would it be such a bad idea to make a play on one or more of these horses beforehand in Derby futures?
Because he is 2-for-2 including an 11-length win over the same mile and 70 yards as Saturday, Principe Guilherme (pronounced “prin-seep gill-air’m”) has been bet down to 20-1 in the Derby pool at the Wynn Las Vegas. The reward for the risk is probably not worth it, not just for the long term but also this weekend. That is because he drew wide for the Lecomte, stacking the deck against jockey Florent Geroux and this $600,000 colt that was sired for $300,000 by top-five stallion Tapit.
“I think the Lecomte will be a very good test for him with him drawing 12,” trainer Steve Asmussen said before scratches moved Principe Guilherme into the 10-hole. “That will put a lot of questions of how effective he can be at a two-turn race that obviously has plenty of pace in it.”
Instilled Regard (4-1) leads the list of Principe Guilherme’s challengers. Bought for $1 million last March he is the shipper that provides the most Derby context to this race after being placed second to McKinzie last month in a bumpy Los Alamitos Futurity. He actually crossed the line third, a head behind McKinzie, but stewards decided in a controversial split vote that his strong close had been cut off illegally by the original first-place finisher Solomini. Last week McKinzie validated the quality of that race by collecting a cleaner victory in the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita.
Instilled Regard is trained by Jerry Hollendorfer and will be ridden Saturday by Javier Castellano, his third different jockey in his last three races.
Like Instilled Regard, closer Kowboy Karma (6-1) should feel at home on the longer homestretch at the Fair Grounds. He and Parx stakes winner Prince Lucky (8-1) will both be in the race for trainer Larry Jones as will the pace-setting Believe In Royalty (15-1).
“I don’t know which horse would have the best shot,” Jones said. “I’m sure it’s whoever gets the best trip. It could be detrimental to get hung on the outside of somebody.”
Whether this race will still look good in May remains to be seen, but confidence may be expressed in a judiciously placed futures bet. With nearly five months until the Derby, Prince Guilherme may not be risk-worthy nor may Instilled Regard at 65-1. But Prince Lucky is 125-1 at the Wynn and Kowboy Karma 200-1, so there may be value there.
Then there is the curiosity involving two long shots in the Lecomte that are making very opposite impressions in Derby futures. The only win in five races for Lone Sailor (15-1) was in the slop last summer at Saratoga, but he was also a close second in an autumn stakes at Churchill Downs, so he is 65-1 for the Derby. The deep-closing Zing Zang (15-1) was a maiden winner last time out over the same course as the Lecomte, but he has Derby odds of 150-1. Go figure.
In the end a bet on any Lecomte horse to win the Derby is a bet that the Lecomte will look as loaded this spring as it does right now. That would fly in the face of history, since the race has spawned only one horse that ended up with the roses. That was War Emblem, which finished fifth at the Fair Grounds in 2002. Hard Spun won the race on his way to finishing second in the 2007 Derby, and Oxbow pulled off the Lecomte-Preakness double in 2013.
But this year’s may be a trend-altering field. It is so good that Mark Casse has removed his highly regarded filly Wonder Gadot; she will race instead against the girls Saturday in the Silverbulletday. And the talent pool chased maiden winner Ciaran, a Malibu Moon gelding, out of the race.
“The Lecomte came up a very deep field,” Ciaran’s trainer Tom Morley said. “We are going to just wait for an allowance the following week.”
Firenze Fire is favored in redrawn Jerome
When the $150,000 Jerome Stakes was called off on New Year’s Day, it was only 19 degrees in New York. The race was rescheduled for Saturday at 3:50 p.m. EST, when the temperature at Aqueduct is forecast to be perhaps 30 degrees warmer.
One thing that did not change even with the race being redrawn with three new colts in the field: Firenze Fire (3-5) is still the heavy favorite not only to win but to validate his 75-1 Derby future odds.
“We still entered,” trainer Jason Servis said, “but the training hasn’t been ideal. The weather shouldn’t really have an impact on him.” Lacking a race last week, Servis put the Champagne Stakes winner through a 50.99-second, four-furlong workout Monday on the Belmont Park training track.
Since the Jerome covers a mile of the main track at Aqueduct, it will not answer the big question about Firenze Fire. That is whether he can be effective past eight furlongs, a doubt that was raised when he finished a lackluster seventh over 1 1/16 miles in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Saturday will be his first race in the more than two months since.
Of the other eight colts in the field, Seven Trumpets (3-1) may be the most backed. Shipped in by trainer Dale Romans, he won his last two races, both sprints at Churchill Downs. This will be his first time racing around two turns.
Navistar is horse to beat in Smarty Jones
A maiden winner last month for trainer Todd Pletcher, Navistar will be aimed by jockey John Velázquez at a front-running, gate-to-wire run in the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes, a two-turn mile Monday at 5:42 p.m. EST at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.
Carrying a 60-1 price in the Derby futures, Navistar was sired by Union Rags out of an Indian Charlie mare. Since winning a Gulfstream Park maiden race last month, he turned in a 49.00-second workout last Sunday at Palm Beach Downs.
Springboard Mile runner-up Combatant, a pace stalker trained by Asmussen, and two-time California stakes runner-up Mourinho, a speed colt trained by Bob Baffert, also shipped into the seven-horse field.
A horse at Belmont Park tested positive for equine herpesvirus, New York racing officials said Wednesday. The diagnosis was made after the unnamed 3-year-old male trained by Linda Rice was taken to the nearby Cornell Ruffian Equine Hospital to be treated for a fever and breathing trouble. The other horses in Barn 44 were quarantined and will not be allowed to race until it is certain they have not caught EHV.
A drug scandal sweeping a big stable in Australia has led to the resignation this week of two trainers. Robert Smerdon and Stuart Webb left Aquanita, which was hit with nearly 300 doping charges in October. They are among four stable employees who must face a government hearing. The stable was accused of illegally giving alkalizing drugs to horses for the past seven years. Two other trainers – Tony Vasil and Liam Birchley – were ordered by Racing Victoria to show why they should not be suspended.
Remember Thunder Snow, the horse that came out of the gate like a rodeo bronco in last year’s Kentucky Derby? Last year’s UAE Derby winner began his 4-year-old season with a second-place finish in the $250,000 Group 2 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 1 at Meydan. The 8-year-old gelding Heavy Metal won the one-mile dirt race by 4½ lengths.
As former Fair Grounds publicist and current racing journalist Michael Adolphson first pointed out years ago, the Lecomte is not the “LeComte,” as it is so often written. The race was named for a prominent 19th-century racehorse owned by racetrack pioneer Richard Ten Broeck. Research shows that Lecomte, with a lower-case “c,” is a common French surname shared by men of past renown in the arts, sciences and sport.
This racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s edition features jockey Brian Hernandez Jr., who talks about the flow of his career from Eclipse Award-winning apprentice to Breeders’ Cup winner, and Fair Grounds track announcer John G. Dooley, who previews Saturday’s Lecomte Stakes. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.