Our TimeformUS Derby Preps series continues with the first stop on the New Orleans path to the Run for the Roses, where 14 3-year-olds will contest the Grade 3 Lecomte on Saturday at Fair Grounds.
There is no clear favorite in this full field, as every participant will be seeking his first stakes victory. The two headliners – if you can call them that – are Mr. Money and Plus Que Parfait, both of whom performed admirably in prestigious races last fall. However, the vast majority of runners in this field are stepping up in class from maiden and allowance races, making this a fascinating yet daunting race for handicappers to decipher.
As is typically the situation in fields this large, the Pace Projector is predicting that a fast pace will develop. Malpais (#2) is expected to establish a clear lead around the clubhouse turn, but he is unlikely to get much early relief as a few key contenders should be vigorously pursuing him. Tackett (#3), Tight Ten (#11), and Manny Wah (#13) have all done their best work when forwardly placed and will likely be ridden to attain pace-pressing positions from the start. Among the established closers that should benefit from a spirited early tempo are Hog Creek Hustle (#6) and Roiland (#7), as well as the versatile Plus Que Parfait (#12).
Let’s go through the entire field:
#1, WICKED INDEED (12-1): This well-bred colt will need to run significantly faster if he is going to make his presence felt in his stakes debut. He was tenacious to win his debut by a nose over today’s rival Chase the Ghost, but he was undoubtedly the aggressor in a bumping incident that occurred in upper stretch. He improved his speed figure on the stretch-out, but was no match for fellow Lecomte entrant Tackett while unable to gain ground on that foe in the lane. Unsurprisingly, Steve Asmussen’s primary rider has instead landed on stablemate Tight Ten. I’m not sure this colt is quite ready for prime time in just his second start around two turns. Pass.
#2, MALPAIS (12-1): He did everything that was asked of him when drawing away to a solid victory in his second start, but that came at 6 furlongs. Malpais now will be attempting two turns for the first time, and his pedigree does not inspire confidence that he will appreciate the added ground. His dam was a pure sprinter, best at 4 1/2 furlongs, and his most accomplished sibling also preferred shorter distances. Supporters will hope that he slows down the fractions on the front end from this advantageous inside draw, but the Pace Projector casts doubt on that scenario. Pass.
#3, TACKETT (6-1): Following an adequate debut effort at 6 furlongs, Tackett has blossomed since stretching out around two turns. He drew off powerfully in the lane while easily breaking his maiden two back. Bet down to 3-5 favoritism in his first start against winners last time, he had to work much harder to earn the victory but basically repeated the speed figure he earned in his maiden score. While he’s been visually impressive in both wins, none of the foes that he’s defeated would be particularly formidable in a race of this caliber. He’s also yet to earn a triple-digit TimeformUS Speed Figure, so he will almost certainly need to improve by a few points if he’s to win his stakes debut. Nevertheless, I like his progression and he figures to work out a decent trip stalking the pace along the rail. Despite being by low-profile sire Limehouse, there is plenty of class and stamina on the bottom side of his pedigree, so there is reason to believe there may yet be latent potential here. He deserves respect, especially if he drifts up off that 6-1 morning line. One of the contenders.
#4, MR. MONEY (5-1): He rewarded his connections’ seemingly ambitious aspirations with an improbable fourth-place effort in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at odds of 41-1. He never really threatened likely champion Game Winner that day, but he put himself squarely in the hunt approaching the quarter pole before fading while still finishing ahead of many talented runners, including recent Sham winner Gunmetal Gray. It would be tempting to assert that his performance was a significant leap forward, but he had actually hinted at possessing significant ability in his prior start. Traveling a route of ground for the first time, he easily overhauled a solid group of maidens in late September, drawing off to an authoritative score in fast time. It would appear that this son of Goldencents has just significantly improved with added distance. He must now prove that those autumn efforts were not mere flukes, and Bret Calhoun’s recent record at this meet might cause some to have doubts. On the other hand, this barn does very well off layoffs this type. Specifically, he is 4 for 11 (36 percent, $6.44 ROI) off breaks of 50 to 100 days in graded stakes on the dirt. This colt appears to be working well ahead of his 3-year-old return, and I’m inclined to be optimistic about his chances. A major threat.
#5, NIGHT OPS (30-1): This plodder would need a total pace collapse in order to make a dent. He was no match for Plus Que Parfait back in October and appears to be ambitiously spotted. Outsider.
#6, HOG CREEK HUSTLE (12-1): He certainly possesses the right kind of running style for this race, but he still must prove that he can employ those late-running tactics over a route of ground. Hog Creek Hustle was thrown directly into the Iroquois off his debut score, and his inexperience appeared to get the better of him. He failed to settle in the early going and offered no late punch. Turned back to sprints, he’s been far more effective in his last two efforts. He was quite impressive in that November allowance victory, as he launched an explosive move from well back in the pack to sweep by the entire field. However, that win was likely exaggerated by circumstances, as he got a fast pace to target and was racing over a surface that favored closers (note the blue color-coded race rating in TimeformUS PPs). He ran essentially the same race last time out in the Sugar Bowl, but this time a slow pace worked against him as he could only manage to rally for third. This horse is obviously stakes quality, but I doubt he’s more than a closing sprinter. His pedigree would appear to confirm that notion, as his only half-sibling is Majestic Dunhill, a stakes-winning sprinter on dirt and turf. A minor award may be the ceiling.
#7, ROILAND (12-1): He finished fifth behind Plus Que Parfait when they met in the Kentucky Jockey Club, but I see some reasons to be optimistic about this colt’s prospects against top 3-year-olds moving forward. While neither horse had a perfect trip in that late November stakes, Roiland may have been more compromised by his trips, as his rider decided to duck inside and weave through traffic at the top of the stretch. Roiland has shown some greenness in his races and he appeared to lose focus when asked to run through a wall of sloppy kickback in the lane. While this colt had never run a particularly fast race in any of his previous starts, I like the progression that he showed through those races. I recognize that he beat nothing of quality in his debut at Indiana Grand. Yet, given that he is physically suited to route distances, I was impressed by his ability to slice between rivals in upper stretch and win going 5 furlongs. Unsurprisingly, he has improved significantly since getting stretched out around two turns. Sent off at 28-1 in that optional claiming race on Oct. 28, he came charging down the center of the track to reel in favored Limonite. That was not a race that fell into the lap of the closers, so he deserves full credit for that score. Notably, that has been a productive race in subsequent months, as Limonite returned to finish a close third in the Kentucky Jockey Club and fourth-place finisher Owendale came back to give fellow Lecomte rival Tackett all that he could handle in that one’s most recent win, earning a significantly faster speed figure. Roiland figures to get the right pace setup and the addition of blinkers could make a major difference, considering his propensity to lose focus during his races. Tom Amoss has had high hopes for this horse despite his modest beginnings and I’m expecting an improved effort out of him. The selection.
#8, WAR OF WILL (6-1): The first of two adjacent Mark Casse entrants figures to attract plenty of support off his impressive maiden score at Churchill Downs. That victory may have been surprising to some pedigree handicappers given his turf-oriented family and prior grass form. This colt garnered some serious respect in his prior stakes attempts on that surface, even going to post as the favorite in the Bourbon despite racing as a maiden. His toughest test to date came in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, and he ran deceptively well that day. While never seriously threatening to win, he was always in contention despite racing 3 to 4 wide around both turns. His pedigree would appear to suggest that turf is his preferred surface, as he is a half-brother to Group 1 turf winner Pathfork and his dam is a half-sister to Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Spinning World. On the other hand, his dam did produce one significant dirt performer, Tacticus, a son of A. P. Indy who won a pair of stakes at marathon distances on dirt. I’m always skeptical of War Front’s progeny going farther than a mile on the main track, but this colt finished well in his maiden score last time and the 102 TimeformUS Speed Figure suggests he’s fast enough to compete this group. The switch to a fast, harrowed track is a major hurdle, but he’s yet to encounter a surface that he does not like. One to consider.
#9, MO SPEED (20-1): Casse’s second runner comes into this Lecomte off two straight victories, yet he still has more to prove than War of Will. From a class perspective, we don’t yet know where this colt stands. He defeated an accomplished foe, Tricky Magician, in his maiden win, but that was on turf in Canada. We did not learn much from his dirt debut last time, as he stalked a glacial early pace and won in relatively slow time over just three rivals. There is still potential for improvement as this Uncle Mo-sired colt is a half-brother to millionaire Neck ‘n Neck. However, he’s difficult to support based solely on his body of work in the afternoon. Pass.
#10, CHASE THE GHOST (12-1): He took the worst of a bumping incident two back, as Wicked Indeed slammed into him in upper stretch while searching for room. After he failed to contain that foe, his connections stretched him out in distance for the first time and he responded well to break his maiden. Unfortunately, those maiden rivals appear to be inferior to the top contenders in this race and he’s yet to run a speed figure that suggests he can compete here. Pass.
#11, TIGHT TEN (8-1): Steve Asmussen and Winchell Thoroughbreds are pressing on in route races despite this colt’s poor effort in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The allure of the Kentucky Derby often causes a few talented 3-year-olds to be mismanaged at this time of year, and I think Tight Ten is falling victim to that danger. This colt possesses real sprint ability, as he showed in his first couple of starts around one turn. While he handled his first route test admirably in the Iroquois, Ricardo Santana did an excellent job of nursing him along on the front end through moderate fractions yet he still could not hold on as the even-money choice. If he couldn’t win on that occasion, it’s hard to envision him putting away some serious pace rivals in this race and holding off the closers. An exotics player at best.
#12, PLUS QUE PARFAIT (9-2): He comes into this race with the top TimeformUS Speed Figure in the field (108), having earned that number for his runner-up effort in last fall’s Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. His connections understandably started his career on the turf given that he’s a son of Point of Entry, but he’s improved immeasurably since switching to the main track. This horse does not possess a quick turn of foot, but he’s shown a willingness to grind away in the stretch. That’s exactly what he did two back when rival Harvey Wallbanger got the jump on him at the head of the stretch at Keeneland. Plus Que Parfait briefly looked to be in trouble while trying to rally again inside of that rival, but responded to his rider’s urging and was able to reclaim the lead at the wire. That tenacious score set him up well for the Kentucky Jockey Club, and he showed that same grit and determination in the stretch. Despite having raced up close to the pace in his two prior starts, he seamlessly adapted to a closing style in that most recent start, making a sweeping move into contention off the far turn before just failing to overhaul the classy Signalman. It appears that this ridgling was just hitting his best stride at the end of his juvenile season, and he should be difficult to defeat if he takes another step forward in his 3-year-old debut. The horse to beat.
#13, MANNY WAH (10-1): Even though he’s the most experienced member of this field with 7 starts, we’re still trying to figure out what he does best. This colt’s sprint performances do not comport with his stamina-oriented pedigree, and that disconnect must be somewhat perplexing for his connections. A son of Travers winner Will Take Charge, he is out of a half-sister to Kentucky Derby runner-up Lookin at Lee and 9-furlong Peter Pan winner Blended Citizen. Based on that evidence, he should relish the Lecomte distance. While did win a race around two turns last fall, it seems clear that he’s generally been more effective over shorter distances. That point was driven home last time when he stepped up with a vastly improved performance in the 6-furlong Sugar Bowl. He couldn’t quite reel in winner Gray Attempt, but he earned a career-best 106 TimeformUS Speed Figure, the second highest number in the race behind Plus Que Parfait’s career top. The biggest hurdle for Manny Wah could be the trip, since he prefers to be forwardly placed and is breaking outside of the other key speeds with a short run to the clubhouse turn. A fringe player.
#14, ADMIRE (20-1): He had to work hard to hold off longshot Night Ops when breaking his maiden in a relatively slow race. While it’s possible that he may improve getting on a fast track for the first time, he would need to run the race of his life while breaking the outside post position. Pass.
#15, WEST TEXAS (20-1): If he draws into the field, he figures to help ensure that the early pace is spirited, but I doubt he will be a factor past the quarter pole. Pass.
The two most likely winners appear to be Mr. Money (#4) and Plus Que Parfait (#12). I have no major knocks against either horse, other than the unappetizing prospect of settling for short prices in a deep and contentious field. I would prefer to support a horse that will offer better value, so my top pick is ROILAND (#7). A number of horses appear to be improving ahead of this race, but I think he stands to take the biggest step forward given the expected dynamics of this race. He’s the type of horse that I want to use prominently in exotics with the two favorites, but I would certainly bet him to win at anything around his 12-1 morning line odds.
Exacta Key Box: 7 with 3,4,8,12
Trifecta: 7 with 4,12 with 3,4,6,8,11,12,13
Trifecta: 4,12 with 7 with 3,4,6,8,11,12,13