The Derby Trail kicks into high gear in Louisiana as a full field will line up to contest the Grade 3 LeComte, the first of three major Fair Grounds stepping stones to the first Saturday in May. While none of the elite three-year-olds has shown up for this early season prep race, we nevertheless are presented with a deep and intriguing cast of characters that should make for a great betting race.
With a particular emphasis on the large field size, The Pace Projector is predicting a fast pace despite the fact that there really are not any proven need-the-lead types entered in the race. The only runner with a graded stakes placing, Mo Tom, is expected to go off as the favorite.
Let’s go through the field:
#1, Riding in the Wind (30/1): This runner was trounced the only time he ventured into the starting gate at an elite racing meet, and that was against maiden company. He has battled for the lead in sprints, but his pace figures suggest he may not even be fast enough to make the lead here. Moving on.
#2, Fish Trappe Road (6/1):
One would think that a New York-bred stepping up into open company for the first time in a graded stakes race might be up against it, but that may not be the case with Fish Trappe Road. Not only did we see good depth in the New York-bred juvenile races last year, but many of them came up pretty fast on the speed figure scale. Fish Trappe Road actually enters this race off the second highest last-out speed figure in the field, which he earned when finishing second in the Sleepy Hollow. He had shown hints of ability over the summer, but seemed to finally put it all together at Belmont last fall. Coming off an impressive maiden win, his connections picked an ambitious spot to try winners for the first time. Get Jets is a talented runner that has every right to make a splash on the Derby trail, but Fish Trappe Road gave him all that he could handle through the stretch of that Sleepy Hollow despite racing on a dead rail for much of his trip. He does have an 84-day layoff to deal with, but Bret Calhoun is capable off breaks of this length and has put this colt through a series of stiff morning drills leading up to this race. Calhoun’s 100 trainer rating with horses trying a route for the second time suggests that another forward move may be in order. He drew a great post position and may offer value at or around his morning line price of 6/1.
#3, Uncle Walter (6/1): The son of record-setting first crop sire Uncle Mo has done little wrong through two career starts. Though he earned a competitive 100 speed figure last time, the jury is still out regarding the overall quality of that field. Synchrony may turn out to be a nice horse, but that race was lacking in depth. This one has been working well for his return at Gulfstream, but he’s light on experience and still must prove that he can overcome adversity. He clearly has ability, but we prefer others at similar prices.
#4, Z Royal (15/1): Though there is a Triple Crown connection with a colt that is owned by Zayat Stables and to be ridden for the first time by Victor Espinoza, Z Royal is no American Pharoah. He took an encouraging step forward second time out when beating maidens and earning a 96 speed figure, but he’d have to run the race of his life to hit the board against a field of this quality. We feel it may be asking too much too soon.
#5, Dolphus (10/1): Rachel Alexandra’s half-brother turned a few heads with his debut win in late November, and he followed that up with a respectable performance going two turns for the first time. There’s definitely potential here, but that last effort isn’t quite going to cut it at this level. There’s also the possibility that his royal bloodlines may lead to him taking more money than he really deserves. He’s definitely one to keep an eye on down the road, but we’re playing against this time.
#6, Noble Thought (10/1): This recent maiden graduate is reportedly scratching, having come up lame earlier in the week.
#7, Mo Tom (7/2): This is the deserving favorite. Just three of the fifteen runners in this race have actually contested a graded stakes race, and Mo Tom is the only to have earned a check against that level of competition. He did so last time in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club over a sloppy track at Churchill Downs. A one-run closer, he was allowed to drop well back early before launching a bid around the far turn. He briefly was forced to steady in tight quarters coming to the top of the stretch, but didn’t lose any valuable momentum as he enjoyed a mostly clear run up the rail. While he did get a good trip, it’s worth noting that he was the only horse making up that kind of significant ground in the late stages of the race. While his pedigree suggests that a mile and a quarter may be a stretch down the line, he has at least proven that he handles today’s distance against a field of this caliber. This colt feels like the real deal. The only knock against him is that he’s the blatantly obvious choice in an otherwise confusing race, and that often results in the horse in question getting bet down to underlay status.
#8, Battle Tap (10/1): There are plenty of Fair Grounds connections in this colt’s pedigree, since he is out of a dam that won the Silverbulletday Stakes as a three-year-old and she is a half-sister to Risen Star and Louisiana Derby winner Pyro. If this race hadn’t come up quite so tough, we might have been more inclined to give this one a look. He made a nice visual impression in his maiden win two back, striding out nicely under the wire after dispatching some overmatched foes. Last time, he never seemed to get into a comfortable rhythm racing over a sloppy track in the Springboard Mile. We would like to be forgiving of that effort, but the waters get deeper today. He’s probably going to be a fair price, so we’ll keep him in mind for consideration underneath in exotic wagers, but a win may be just out of reach.
#9, Indygo Breeze (50/1): This colt lost to three of today’s rivals by over 40 lengths last time. We’re not quite sure what he’s doing in this race.
#10, Pinnacle Peak (8/1): This is the wire-to-wire winner of the December 18 N1X-allowance prep for this race. That win came as somewhat of a surprise, since he had previously been embarrassed by last-out runner-up Tom’s Ready in the Street Sense at Churchill Downs in November. Perhaps it was the stretch-out to two turns or his ability to relax on the lead, but this colt was very game in victory last time, turning back multiple challenges to gut out the win. Since his only two wins have come when he’s been allowed to relax up front, his connections are probably thinking about employing those tactics here. However, the Pace Projector is predicting that a few others are fast early, so he may have to work harder than he did last time to make the lead entering the clubhouse turn. Another negative is that he has to endure a nine-pound weight shift in favor of his opponents, Dolphus and Tom’s Ready, this time, which is why his weight-adjusted speed figure for that win is only showing up as a 97. We respect his heart, but this may be a tall order.
#11, Tiznoble (10/1): Having run speed figures between 97 and 102 while racing on turf and dirt, he would appear to be a contender. However, we’re concerned that he may not be a true dirt horse. His pedigree would certainly suggest otherwise, since he’s a half-brother to dirt stakes-placed runner Oceanwave, and his dam is a full-sister to Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Tapizar. Yet we’re somewhat turned off by the fact that he was started out racing on turf with a pedigree like that. Then, last time, in his only dirt start, he was racing over a sealed track, which is sometimes kinder to turf horses, and was kept out in the clear the entire way so he never got to experience kickback. He doesn’t appear to be fast enough to take the lead early, so he will almost certainly be hit with kickback this time. It may sound like nitpicking, but that can be tough for an inexperienced horse to overcome in a full field, especially while facing graded-stakes-caliber competition for the first time.
#12, Mending Fences (20/1): Despite having yet to finish out of the money through three starts, he just broke his maiden and has never raced on dirt. He would likely need to improve with the surface switch since his best grass race won’t get the job done at this level. There are too many question marks for us to consider him seriously.
#13, Destin (6/1): This colt presents a conundrum. Normally, we’d have to respect any three-year-old that Todd Pletcher deems worthy of embarking with on the Derby trail. However, this year, Todd Pletcher doesn’t seem to have the number of quality three-year-olds that his stable has developed in past seasons. So has Destin really earned his spot in this race, or is Todd Pletcher just out of better options at this point in time? While this full-brother to San Felipe winner Creative Cause made a good impression in his debut, his last race was just awful. Sent postward as a legitimate 3/10 favorite, he was incredibly dull, which is especially alarming considering how well Todd Pletcher usually does with these types of runners at Gulfstream. His outside draw does him no favors, and he’s likely to take money just because of the connections. We’re taking a stand against this one.
#14, Tarpon Bay Road (20/1): The only maiden in the race figures to be a pace factor since he’s likely to get sent towards the front from his outside post position. However, he figures to get outpaced when the real running begins.
#15, Tom’s Ready (5/1): The second favorite on the morning line was assured of a spot in the starting gate when Noble Thought was withdrawn earlier in the week. He’s certainly consistent, having recorded speed figures between 97 and 99 in four straight races heading into this. While the Kentucky Jockey Club was a mild disappointment, he bounced back nicely last time, making an eye-catching mid-race move after breaking slowly. He briefly appeared poised to close them all down in the stretch, but today’s rival, Pinnacle Peak, got brave in the late stages and held him off. There’s no question that the ability is there, but Shaun Bridgmohan is probably going to have to work some magic to win from this post position. We also wonder how much more improvement we can expect from a runner that’s making his seventh lifetime start, especially considering that a few others would appear to have more upside. We’re certainly not dead set against him, but we do feel that he could be an underlay.
Our top pick is FISH TRAPPE ROAD (#2). While he’s never tried two turns, we thought he handled a mile well in the Sleepy Hollow last time, and his preparation since then suggests that another forward move could be in order. While we think he’ll offer the best value of the major contenders, we also have to use the logical favorite, Mo Tom (#7), liberally in any multi-horse wagers.
TRIFECTA: 2,7 with 2,7 with 3,5,8,15
TRIFECTA: 2,7 with 3,5,8,15 with 2,7