The Grade 2, $400,000 New Orleans Handicap has a field of 10 older horses going a mile and 1/8 on the dirt. The favorites on the morning line, Eagle and International Star, break from the outside post and the inside post, respectively, and both exit the Grade 3 Mineshaft Handicap, run over this surface.
According to the TimeformUS Pace Projector, the pace of the New Orleans Handicap will be neither fast nor slow, and Majestic Harbor will be on a clear early lead. Coup de Grace is a stalking second early, and Jessica’s Star is right behind in third place.
The fastest TimeformUS Late Pace rating in the field, a 113, is shared by Mobile Bay and Eagle, with International Star’s 110 making him third best.
Here is the field in post position order, with morning line odds in parentheses:
International Star (3-1): 4 for 5 lifetime at Fair Grounds, two of those wins were in Grade 2s and another was in a Grade 3. He draws inside, projects to be near the back early, and is proven at this distance. Won a minor stake over this surface two back and earned a lifetime-top speed figure of 118. Ran a disappointing 4th (at 3-5) last time, failing to threaten Majestic Harbor or Eagle during their stretch duel. Excuses for the dull performance? Well, he found the rail on the first turn, stayed near it the rest of the way, had room to run, but did not have his usual kick. Yes, the pace was slow (note pace figures color-coded in blue), but it was slow for Eagle, too, and Eagle outran International Star late. In any case, good horses throw relatively dull efforts and with regularity promptly return to form. International Star takes a regular turn off regular workouts and is a strong contender today.
Stormdriver (20-1): Deep-closing six-year-old has back races that can be competitive but nothing has been coming easily for him against state-breds of late. This looks like a tough assignment, though he is a likely scratch.
Jessica’s Star (12-1): That was a gritty effort in the Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston. Off a 245-day layoff and dismissed at 13-1, he engaged for the lead from the gate, backed off, reengaged, outdueled Coup de Grace, and fought all the way to the line, losing to the deep-closing Mobile Bay late. He earned a 116 for the effort. That matches his lifetime-top. A lightly raced five-year-old, Jessica’s Star could well have more to give as he goes second off the layoff, though we’ll point out that trainer Michael Stidham gets a better rating (95) off layoffs than he does (87) second off the layoff. Jessica’s Star has a pleasing stalking style and figures for his usual sort of trip today. He has won over this surface, but we see him as only a marginal contender today.
Majestic Harbor (4-1): Grade One-winning eight-year-old ran five points off his top (earned in 2014) after controlling the slow pace in the Mineshaft and holding off a determined bid from Eagle. Pace Projector shows him on a clear early lead again. The horse it shows in second-place early, Coup de Grace, was content to sit off of Majestic Harbor in their January 16th stakes encounter and may well employ the same tactics today. Trainer Paul McGee gets a 79 rating when attempting a repeat victory. Given all the mileage on him, Majestic Harbor’s old top of 122 may best be looked at as difficult to repeat. But even if we call 118 his effective top, he is fully qualified to win this race with a similar number today. Another strong contender.
Coup de Grace (15-1): 5 for 14 lifetime, all of his wins have come around one turn. Returned from a six-month layoff to try International Star and Eagle in a minor stake at Fair Grounds in mid-January and proved no match. Returned in the aforementioned Maxxam Gold Cup, run over the longest distance he has ever tried, and he made the lead and defended the rail all the way around the track, running in solid-but-not-fast fractions. Ultimately, he came up a length and one-half shy of Mobile Bay, but his 113 speed figure was the best route number he has ever run. The always-dangerous Larry Jones gets a 93 rating third off the layoff, and Coup de Grace is perfectly capable of coming from off the pace if necessary. However, we have a nagging feeling that he is just a tad shy of the type of effort it would take to win this.
Ride On Curlin (20-1): We were a fan of his during the 2014 Triple Crown chase. Has some huge back numbers (including a 126), and his second-place finish in the Preakness will always be with him. Unfortunately, the more recent version of Ride On Curlin has been no match for Eagle, International Star, or Mobile Bay. We’re looking elsewhere.
Ran three 114s as a five-year-old. At age six, he ran a couple of interesting races to start the year. In the first one, he was wide and well off the slow pace in a sprint. In the second one, he stretched out to a mile and got choked in a bad spot against a slow pace. Then he put it together in a second-level allowance over this surface: Three-wide and then two-wide around the first turn and three-four wide around the far turn, he uncorked a strong run and earned a figure of 109. The third-place finisher from that race, who employed a similar running style, came back to improve his figure by 14 points to take a similar race. Trainer Michael Maker has a strong record in graded stakes at Fair Grounds, and if S’maverlous gets the right pace to run at and manages to find his way back to his top, he could be a late threat on the class jump at a giant price.
Mobile Bay (8-1):
Won the Grade 2 Super Derby last summer. Also ran third in the Oklahoma Derby and won a Zia stake with a figure of 118. Then he ran two relatively dull races. Then he won the Maxxam Gold Cup with a figure of 117, and he earned this number despite a very interesting trip. He broke poorly, went four-wide around the first turn, advanced from the outside on the backstretch, and went four-wide around the far turn, yet he still had punch in the lane. It was a big performance, and if he can repeat it on the class hike, he is not out of this on the win end. Plus his price should be appetizing.
Freestyler (6-1): 10 for 29 lifetime, this six-year-old has now gone six races without a victory. However, his speed figures have stayed strong, and he has given good accounts of himself while losing to Eagle in the Tenacious at Fair Grounds and losing to Mobile Bay in the Maxaam Gold Cup. In the latter race, he stalked the pace, went three-wide around both turns, and paired his lifetime-top speed figure of 117 while coming up almost two lengths shy of Mobile Bay, who himself did not receive an ideal trip. As usual, Freestyler is a contender, but his 6-1 ML odds don’t strike us as sufficient on the win end.
Eagle (2-1): Four-year-old colt has never won a graded stake, but he was 3/4 of a length shy of winning a Grade 2 as a two-year-old and a head shy of winning a Grade 3 in February. His Mineshaft effort was visually impressive, as he went 3-2 wide around the first turn, settled outside International Star, and made a nice three-wide run into the soft fractions before falling just short. Pace adjusted as they are, our speed figures penalize Majestic Harbor several points for the soft pace, and this leaves Eagle with the fastest last-out speed figure in the field: a 121. His previous effort, a 120, also stands tall in here. Eagle has now improved in three straight races. He draws a tricky post, but he is the most lightly raced horse in the field, as well as the fastest off recent form, and he certainly qualifies as yet another strong contender.
Majestic Harbor, Eagle, and International Star are the logical and worthy favorites, but we’re going to roll the dice and hope for a hot pace to assist Mobile Bay (8-1 ML) and S’maverlous (20-1 ML) in their late runs.
We will make S’maverlous our win bet, and we will use both Mobile Bay and S’maverlous in multi-race exotics and underneath in verticals.