Lecomte may not be proving ground for Kentucky Derby

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

Plus Que Parfait is the 9-2 morning-line favorite for Saturday’s Lecomte Stakes, a points prep at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans for Kentucky Derby 145. (Coady Photography)

Las Vegas

Bettors can get a case of withdrawal going two weeks between Kentucky Derby preps. But seasoned horseplayers know that the thirst for action may not be quenched with a long-term play coming out of New Orleans.

Nothing against the Fair Grounds, where the $200,000 Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes will be run for Derby points at 6:49 p.m. EST on what is forecast to be a wet Saturday. I quite like the place. I had a good albeit less-than-profitable time in my one visit there six years ago. But when it comes to spawning Kentucky Derby winners, there are better tracks.

The only time the Lecomte or the Risen Star in February has produced a Derby winner was 2002, when War Emblem finished off the board in both preps. The Louisiana Derby in March has been a stepping stone for three Kentucky winners – but none since Funny Cide did it 16 years ago. Of the tracks that host current preps, only six have produced fewer Derby winners, and five of them host only one points race a year.

So does that make the Lecomte a throwaway for players looking for horses that will get to the gate at Churchill Downs? That is a different matter. At least one Derby horse has come from each of the last six runnings of the Lecomte, including last year’s winner Instilled Regard (fourth in Kentucky) and eighth-place Lone Sailor (eighth in Kentucky). For Instilled Regard, the Lecomte remains his most recent victory.

So what is it about the Fair Grounds that keeps it from being a bellwether for success at Churchill Downs? Some have suggested that the main track’s 1,346-foot homestretch, second only to Los Alamitos among Derby prep courses, is too long for new 3-year-olds still being stretched on their way to 1¼ miles in May.

There is also the theory that says the longer the homestretch, the better chance that a closer finishes first. Indeed, the last four winners of the Lecomte were at least 4½ lengths behind at one of the first two calls. The problem with that in the long term is that the Derby is no longer made for closers, what with pace-chasers dominating the race since the points system came into play six years ago. (Click here for an explanation in my Sept. 14 column.)

But the most logical reason that the Fair Grounds main track has not been a proving ground for the Derby is that top horsemen do not send their best horses there. Gulfstream Park, Keeneland and Oaklawn Park, which have current points preps that produced a combined 82 Derby winners, attract more highly regarded 3-year-olds.

For example, half the 14-horse field for this year’s Lecomte has never been in a graded stakes. Only three have hit the board at that level, including morning-line favorite Plus Que Parfait (9-2) – pronounced “ploos kay par-fay” – a pace-chaser that was uncharacteristically unhurried his last time out Thanksgiving week. He spotted the field 8¼ lengths before making up ground to finish a close second to Signalman in the slop of the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs. Julien Leparoux rode him for the first time that day and will get the ride again Saturday for trainer Brendan Walsh.

Trained by Bret Calhoun, Mr. Money (5-1) is a maiden winner that makes his first start since he finished a distant fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. With Gabriel Sáez riding, he is likely to chase the early pace Saturday over the mile and 70 yards.

With thunderstorms in the weekend forecast, War Of Will (6-1) may be the foul-weather, value play. He bounced back from a fifth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf to break his maiden in November around two turns at Churchill Downs. That was his first time coming off the turf for trainer Mark Casse. Tyler Gaffalione gets a second consecutive ride on this colt by War Front that cost owner Gary Barber $298,600 at last May’s Arqana sale in France.

Tackett (6-1) moves up in class after a pair of Fair Grounds wins at the Lecomte distance. Steve Asmussen-trained speed horse Tight Ten (8-1) had a rough trip finishing ninth in the Juvenile and figures to carry value with bettors expecting him to get an overdue clean trip. A winner at 5½ furlongs and a mile, stakes runner-up Manny Wah (10-1) breaks from post 13 and should be forward early.

Bettors presuming that this race sets up for closers will look to Hog Creek Hustle (12-1), a two-time winning sprinter that is taking a second stab at a two-turn race. He was never a threat in the Grade 3 Iroquois on Sept. 18, but the slow pace that day does not figure to be duplicated with the Lecomte field.

With Florent Geroux getting the ride for the first time for trainer Vickie Foley, Hog Creek Hustle will be part of my ticket with Tight Ten. But both will be underneath Plus Que Parfait, a horse that already has shown himself versatile enough to prevail no matter what sort of pace the race holds, and War Of Will, a colt that may be more at home on the dirt – or slop – than he ever was on the turf.

But no matter which horse wins the Lecomte, recent history and the makeup of this field suggest that it may not be a long-term play for the Derby. We will certainly know in less than four months.

Was CDI right to block DraftKings futures?

This will not be a popular point of view, but I find it hard to fault Churchill Downs Inc. for prodding DraftKings to take down Johnny Avello’s Kentucky Derby futures last week in Mississippi.

The prevailing notion is that the Derby is America’s race. But like it or not, it is wholly owned by CDI.

Yes, CDI is a company that sometimes goes to great lengths to stifle competitive rivals. But in this case it makes perfect business sense to protect its property and trademark in a burgeoning market where it has also made an investment. CDI has casinos and sportsbooks in coastal Mississippi that compete directly with the Scarlet Pearl, where DraftKings posted its Derby odds.

In a written response to a VSiN request for comment, CDI said, “Federal law requires the consent of the track on which the wager is placed as well as other necessary approvals. In this case the wagers did not meet the requirements of federal law, including obtaining of our consent.” The statement did not specify which law.

DraftKings has yet to comment. A spokesman said in a Monday email that he was “working on getting something over to (VSiN) and appreciate your patience in the meantime.”

In his 13 years at the Wynn Las Vegas, Avello was never blocked from posting his Derby futures. If CDI had done so, it would have been biting a feeding hand from a casino with which it was already doing business. Like so many other Nevada books, the Wynn takes racing bets, and CDI gets the biggest piece of the action that is generated by its tracks. That cannot occur right now with DraftKings or Scarlet Pearl or Mississippi, because they are not licensed to take pari-mutuel racing bets. So CDI had no financial incentive – either direct or indirect – to bless DraftKings’ futures.

This is not to suggest that I favor the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and NHL putting its hand out for what it may claim to be its fair share. Not at all. Those leagues get business in the form of eyeballs for their televised product, and those eyeballs are multiplied by allowing others to book bets on their games. Like it or not, racing is not as popular; that bone does not have as much meat to go around. Furthermore, Derby futures are not going to raise TV ratings, because those bettors are already watching.

There is justifiable criticism, though, if CDI does not offer its own futures – and more than just the 24 betting options currently available only four weekends a year. But that aside, it was not unreasonable for CDI to keep its product from being used for profit by a business rival if it does not see a cent of that.

I certainly welcome reaction to this via Twitter @ronflatter or via @VSiNLive. Some feedback may be posted here and on the Ron Flatter Racing Pod.

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. This week’s edition features Fair Grounds TV host/handicapper Joe Kristufek previewing Saturday’s Lecomte Stakes. Also, jockey Joel Rosario discusses his rides on Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Accelerate, the favorite for next week’s $9 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational. The feature Racehorses by the Letters will consider the best horse with a name starting with “K,” and there will be a commentary on Churchill Downs Inc.’s objection to DraftKings’ Kentucky Derby futures. The RFRP is also available at leading providers such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play Podcasts and Stitcher.

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