Horse racing: Cox Set to Rock

Horse racing: Cox Set to Rock

Everybody knows how to party in New Orleans. The management team at Fair Grounds Racecourse & Casino is banking on that on March 25, Louisiana Derby (G2) day, with the program stacked with 15 races. With a first post at noon CT and the finale set for 8 p.m., it’s an all-day affair. It will take the hardiest of handicappers to wade through the entire card, so we’ll just hone in on the four graded races on the day, starting with the $1 million Derby.

Several years ago, the Louisiana Derby/Kentucky Derby double was all but D.O.A. A few things have been tweaked, though, and now it is a key event on the road to the Run for the Roses May 6 at Churchill Downs. Foremost, the race used to be run early in March, so the Louisiana Derby was a springboard to yet another prep to make the Derby. Way back in 2003, Funny Cide ran third in the March 9 Louisiana Derby (was elevated to second via DQ) and then was second in the Wood Memorial Stakes (G1) on April 12 before earning his upset victory at Churchill Downs.

The race moved to the last weekend of March in 2010, and with more trainers opting to space their starts out en route to the Kentucky Derby, this six-week pattern falls right into their wheelhouse. The race also covers more ground—the Louisiana Derby is now run at 1 3/16 miles—giving trainers a better look at their charges at near the 1¼-mile Derby trip. Add to that the fact the Fair Grounds has the longest stretch of any dirt track in the U.S., and again, horsemen have the opportunity to get a gauge on how a horse finishes.

Mandaloun flopped as the favorite in the 2021 Louisiana Derby, but came back to run second in the Kentucky Derby, and was eventually declared the winner following the Bob Baffert-trained Medina Spirit being disqualified for a drug positive. Last year’s Louisiana Derby winner, eventual 3-year-old male champ Epicenter, ran a winning race under the Twin Spires but was nabbed late by 80-1 Rich Strike. Arrows are certainly pointing toward the Louisiana Derby being a key race.

Mandaloun was trained by Brad Cox, who now ranks among the sport’s “super trainers,” which includes Baffert, Todd Pletcher, and Chad Brown. Cox’s star has risen quickly after the Louisville native won his first Grade 1 with Monomoy Girl in the spring of 2018. Five years later, he has a Derby victory under his belt, two Eclipse Awards as an outstanding trainer, and now has access to the crème de la crème of horses owned by Juddmonte, Sheik Mohammed’s Godolphin, and a host of other high-end owners.

This winter, Cox has horses stabled at Fair Grounds and Oaklawn. His Fair Grounds stand has been outstanding, winning with 35 of 86 starters so far, a staggering 41%.

That circles us back to the Louisiana Derby (Race 12 of the day), where Cox has three of the 12 entrants. It’s easy to make a case for all three. The lowest-priced, based on the morning line, is Instant Coffee (post 2, 2-1), a logical selection based on his score Jan. 21 at the Fair Grounds Lecomte Stakes (G3). A win in the tough Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs, after a fourth-place finish behind class leader Forte in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), adds a high floor to his resume. A steady work pattern indicates he’s been prepared properly for this.

Cox’s other two also offer intrigue. Tapit’s Conquest (post 9, 10-1) will make his third start of the season in the Louisiana Derby, a neck defeat going two turns in an allowance optional claiming race and a solid fourth-place finish in the Feb. 18 Risen Star Stakes at 1 1/18 miles. A popular handicapping pattern of backing a horse in their third start off a rest, especially after a good return followed by a “regression” or “bounce” in their second outing, comes into effect here. His Beyer Speed Figure didn’t regress, but his points in the track variant (Daily Racing Form) figure did. At 10-1 on the morning line, he has some appeal, as does Cox’s third runner, Jace’s Road.

Jace’s Road (post 11, 12-1), a $510,000 sale yearling, has been based at Cox’s barn in Arkansas but did travel to Fair Grounds for the Dec. 26 Gun Runner Stakes. He won by 5½ lengths. Before and after the Gun Runner, he ran on off tracks and apparently has no liking for running on sloppy/sealed surfaces. His efforts on dry tracks are the draw here, along with a steady work tab. Getting Cox’s go-to rider, Florent Geroux, and an outside post to get a clear run early makes him the runner I’ll be betting across the board.

The Fair Grounds Oaks (G2; race 11) has long been a key prep for the Kentucky Oaks (G1), but this year’s draw of just five runners doesn’t carry the same cache. There is plenty of pace for the 1 1/16-mile Oaks on Saturday, with Godolphin’s Pretty Mischievous seemingly holding the best hand for trainer Brendan Walsh. In mid-February, she won the local prep for this, the Rachel Alexandra Stakes (G2). Louisiana-native Tom Amoss trains the lone “closer” in the field in Hoosier Philly, who was a tiring third behind Pretty Mischievous last time out. Hoosier Philly was unbeaten in three starts last year, so there is plenty of back class, but as runners from 2 to 3, they have to prove themselves all over again. I’m not overly excited about this cast, but Pretty Mischievous, the favorite, has won four of five and is two-for-two over the strip.

The two earlier graded stakes are for older runners. The New Orleans Classic Stakes (G2, race 9) at nine panels features Art Collector, the runaway winner of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes (G1) on Jan. 28 at Gulfstream Park. The horse was an inconsistent sort until transferred to trainer Bill Mott in mid-2021 and since then, has won twice at the Grade 1 level and has earned more than $2.2 million for breeder/owner Bruce Lunsford. Art Collector towers over the field on paper and may best be used in doubles, pick 3s, or the all-stakes pick 5 (races 8-12).

Looking for a spoiler? Check out the Bret Calhoun-trained Mr. Wireless, a loser in two photos in his last pair while facing mostly the same horses that return here. He’s game as can be and certainly can handle the trip.

The Marvin Muniz Memorial Classic (G2T; race 10) at 1 1/8 miles on the turf offers a stellar handicapping challenge. Here we’ll land on the Jason Barkley-trained outsider Spooky Channel, who comes off a close-up in Sam Houston’s John B. Connelly Stakes (G3T) over soft going. He cuts back from 12 furlongs to nine and, with firm going, might duplicate his winning effort in Fair Grounds’ Buddy Diliberto Memorial Stakes back in December. He’s 9-2 on the morning line and is a 5-year-old gelding by turf champion English Channel. Also by English Channel is English Tavern, who I backed last time in the Feb. 18 Fair Grounds Stakes (G3T). He belatedly rallied for third. I’ll give him another try here with a little more ground to cover, and try to cap an English Channel exacta.

The racing doesn’t begin and end at Fair Grounds: Turfway Park hosts its Derby prep, the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3; race 12), on the northern Kentucky tracks’ synthetic surface.

Like its Louisiana counterpart, it has drawn a full field of 3-year-olds looking to survive and advance, but this cast seems to have more pretenders than contenders, with some synthetic-proven runners and some horses being sent out to see if they can show some form reversal on the poly.

Lo and behold, Brad Cox has a runner here. Out in post 11 is Godolphin-homebred Wadsworth, who since being gelded, has won his last two starts at Turfway Park by a combined 12½ lengths. He failed to break his maiden in his first three starts at 2, but in reading the company lines, he faced tip-top-level competition. The new equipment (being gelded), plus the two synthetic scores, and a top pedigree (by top sire Quality Road, out of the Grade 1-winning Dickinson), have me in his corner. Consistent Two Phil’s (second in the Lecomte and third in the Risen Star at Fair Grounds) is a strong player here as well.

Evan Hammonds is the former editor of BloodHorse.

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