10 things I’m looking forward to at the Louisiana Derby

Profile Picture: James Scully

March 22nd, 2016

The final round of Kentucky Derby prep races begins Saturday with the $1 million Louisiana Derby (G2) at Fair Grounds and I’m excited to be heading to the New Orleans track, covering the meet’s biggest day.

Point values increase to 100-40-20-10 for the top four finishers and a trio of well-regarded 3-year-olds – Greenpointcrusader, Gun Runner and Mo Tom – highlight the 11-horse field. The 1 1/8-mile Louisiana Derby is the centerpiece of a 15-race program, with eight other stakes races including three Grade 2 events.

Here are 10 things I’m looking forward to on Saturday:

1) Kentucky Derby implications: Hero of Order’s 109-1 upset in 2012 left me shaking my head -- the 1-for-13 former claimer wasn’t even nominated for the Triple Crown. Recent Preakness (Oxbow) and Belmont Stakes (Palace Malice) winners have prepped in the Louisiana Derby, but the race has produced only 1996 Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone in modern times. Kentucky Derby implications are the overriding storyline, with Saturday’s winner guaranteed to bolster his resume with a strong performance.

2) Does Gun Runner continue to move forward?: Gun Runner has the right profile, registering increasing BRIS Speed ratings in all four career starts, including an initial stakes victory in his 2016 reappearance, the February 20 Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds, but the chestnut colt’s overall quality remains a topic for debate. He’ll need to keep moving forward to establish himself as a serious contender for the first Saturday in May and the Steve Asmussen trainee is eligible to keep improving in his second start of the season.

3) Mo Tom’s late turn of foot: Mo Tom mowed down rivals with an eye-catching stretch run in the first local prep, the January 16 Lecomte (G3), but his late kick was severely compromised when forced to check behind a tiring rival in upper stretch of the Risen Star, forcing him to rally belatedly for third. From the first crop of record-setting freshman sire Uncle Mo, Mo Tom possesses a late turn of foot that could serve him well in the final furlongs at Churchill Downs, especially if rebounds in the Louisiana Derby, but I want to see him make him up ground on the far turn; the Kentucky Derby is often won by horses launching their move on the far turn and Mo Tom has been holding his place at that critical stage, waiting until the stretch drive to offer his best stride.

4) Is Greenpointcrusader for real?: Following a 4 ½-length victory in the one-mile Champagne (G1) at Belmont Park, Greenpointcrusader was bet down as a lukewarm 7-2 favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) but the late runner could only pass tiring rivals at Keeneland in a seventh-place effort. He came back this year in the 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull (G2) at Gulfstream Park, showing surprising speed before finishing second to top-ranked Kentucky Derby contender Mohaymen, and the dark bay colt looms as a serious win contender following the commendable performance. However, Greenpointcrusader has never won around two turns and hasn’t started in 56 days. And despite a stamina-oriented pedigree at first glance, with sire Bernardini winning the Preakness and Travers and broodmare sire Cryptoclearance being a top-class distance horse, Greenpointcrusader is closely related to a number of speedy horses. We’ll see how he handles the stretch out to 1 1/8 miles as the Louisiana Derby promises to give us a much better read upon the well-regarded prospect.

5) Up-and-coming types: Battery exits a convincing two-length victory in a 1 1/8-mile Gulfstream allowance and will make his first stakes attempt for Todd Pletcher, a three-time Louisiana Derby winner. Dazzling Gem made a belated career debut in mid-January but has captured both starts at Oaklawn, scoring by an easy two-length margin over allowance foes most recently, and Conquest Windycity also invades from the Arkansas track with a two-race win skein in tow. All are listed at double-digit odds along with Forevamo, a more seasoned rival who broke through with a fast-closing second in the Risen Star at 40-1, and they rate as candidates to outrun their projected odds with further improvement.

6) Oaks class relief: After facing Songbird at Santa Anita, Land Over Sea and Street Fancy should relish the class relief in the $400,000 Fair Grounds Oaks (G2). Land Over Sea has been chasing the superstar filly in her last five starts, recording non-threatening seconds in the Santa Ysabel (G3) and Las Virgenes (G2) this year. Street Fancy, who was also well-beaten in the Las Virgenes, took advantage of Songbird’s absence when capturing the Los Alamitos Starlet (G1) two starts back. The California shippers appear well-spotted on Saturday.

7) Local filly contingent: Fair Grounds has a rich history with the Kentucky Oaks, with five of the last eight winners prepping over the track, but I’m not keen on the fillies from the first two stakes this meet, the Rachel Alexandra (G2) and Silverbulletday. Four of the eight Fair Grounds Oaks entrants participated in those slow heats and I’ll probably go in a different direction. Among the candidates are locally-based runners Adore (who will make her stakes debut for Asmussen off a sharp allowance score) and Dream Dance (multiple stakes-placed & making her first start of the year), who are both worth a look in the contentious field.

8) New Orleans/Muniz: Older horses will be on display in the $400,000 New Orleans H. (G2) and $400,000 Muniz Memorial H. (G2) on turf, and the races are likely to produce contestants for graded stakes on Kentucky Derby weekend. Each one features a top contender with a major affinity for their respective surface. International Star, who swept the trio of graded stakes for 3-year-olds last year, brings a 4-for-5 record over the main track into the New Orleans, with an inside speed bias conspiring against him in the lone setback last time. John Velazquez will be up on the Mike Maker-trained colt and International Star is the horse to beat among 10 rivals. Chocolate Ride, who has proven to be the ultimate horse for the course since being claimed for $40,000 in November 2014, heads the 11-horse Muniz Memorial. The Brad Cox-conditioned gelding registered his sixth straight win over Fair Grounds’ turf (7-6-1-0 overall) when capturing the February 20 Fair Grounds H. (G3) in wire-to-wire fashion and the probable favorite will be forwardly-placed once again with Florent Geroux.

9) Dry conditions: Rain is likely Thursday (90% chance) but the turf will have four days to dry out since the previous rainfall and let’s hope the precipitation isn’t too severe because ideal conditions are expected Friday. Saturday should be another glorious afternoon if the early forecast of evening showers holds.

10) Cuisine: Okay, this may be mostly non-track related (Liuzza’s is nearly on the grounds), but I’ll be in New Orleans and can’t wait to enjoy the food. And I’ll be sharing photos on my Twitter account from both the Fair Grounds and local restaurants this week.

Gun Runner winning the Risen Star photo courtesy of Amanda Hodges Weir/Hodges Photography