Just in case anyone missed the point, Saturday's races at Fair Grounds in New Orleans ran under the banner "Road to the Derby Kickoff Day."
That means, of course, that horses running in the $100,000 Lecomte Stakes were gunning for a chance in the Louisiana Derby and, ultimately, the Kentucky Derby. And the Louisiana-Arkansas axis has been a major producer in recent years for the Kentucky Derby field.
Of course, so has California. And Santa Anita's 3-year-old feature Saturday was the $150,000 San Rafael, a steppingstone to the Santa Anita Derby and then -- well, you get the idea.
Hard Spun came into the Lecomte undefeated in four races and fresh from a victory in the Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes at Philadelphia Park -- a race won a few years ago by a horse named Smarty Jones, who went on to Kentucky Derby glory. Hard Spun, a bay son of Danzig, is trained by Larry Jones.
With Mario Pino up, the colt wasted no time going to the lead, turned back a challenge from Izzy's Halo and opened up again in the stretch to win by 6 1/2, confirming the evidence of his pedigree that a distance of ground will be no problem for him.
Izzy's Halo held on for second and Teuflesberg was third. Sent to the post as the even-money favorite, Hard Spun ran the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.87.
"He looked like he handled the course real well," said trainer Jones, "so the Louisiana Derby is a definite possibility. We're certainly not going to rule anything out."
Meanwhile, in California, Notional went to the post in the San Rafael as the odds-on favorite after finishing a close sixth in his last effort -- the Grade I Hollywood Futurity, won by Stormello.
With Corey Nakatani calling the shots, the California-bred In Excess colt stalked the pace, waiting nicely until called on to run leaving the second turn. Given the go-ahead, he easily drew clear and won by 4 lengths over Tenfold, a rapidly developing Tiznow colt from the Bob Baffert barn. Grapelli finished third.
Notional won his first start, then finished third in the Hollywood Prevue. Trainer Doug O'Neill added blinkers for the San Rafael.
O'Neill, who also conditions early Derby hopefuls Great Hunter and Liquidity, said he is trying to keep his charges from butting heads too early in the season. "We're hoping to run Liquidity in the (Feb. 3) Sham and Great Hunter is supposed to run in the (March 3) Bob Lewis," he said. "But if all three are doing great and the right race fits two horses, two might run together.
"The goal, obviously, is the first Saturday in May with all three, if we were to get that lucky," O'Neill added, unnecessarily.
In other weekend racing:
Purim pressed the early pace in Saturday's $100,000 Colonel E.R. Bradley Handicap, got to the lead early in the stretch run and held off the late run of the favorite, Fort Prado, to win by a head. Cloudy's Knight finished third. Purim, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred son Dynaformer, ran the "about" 1 1/16 mile on firm turf in 1:43.22 with Jesus Castanon up.
Venomous rallied along the rail in deep stretch and was up in time to win Saturday's $100,000 Colonel Power Stakes by a neck over Clock Stopper. Meteor Impact finished third. Venomous, with Elvis Perrodin in the irons, ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.58. He is a 5-year-old, Texas-bred son of Rare Brick.
Smitty's Sunshine led most of the way to a comfortable, 3 3/4-length victory over Follow the Lite in Saturday's $100,000 Dr. A.B. Leggio Memorial Stakes for fillies and mares. No Fair was third. Smitty's Sunshine, a 4-year-old, Louisiana-bred filly by Seeking a Home, ran "about" 5 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:03.17 with Robby Albarado riding.
Get Ready Bertie sat well back in the pack in Saturday's $100,000 Tiffany Lass Stakes for 3-year-old fillies until the turn. Then, with Albarado showing the way, the Kentucky-bred More than Ready filly switched out to the middle of the track and stormed to the front, winning by 2 lengths over Dawn After Dawn. Stage Stop was third. Get Ready Bertie ran the 1 mile in 1:39.52.
Awesome Gem came from well back in the field in Saturday's $200,000 San Fernando Breeders' Cup for 4-year-olds, closed stoutly on the outside through the stretch and was just up to beat Midnight Lute by a nose. The favorite Brother Derek, again was a bridesmaid, finishing third with no late punch. Awesome Gem, a Kentucky-bred gelding by Awesome Again, ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:41.90 under Tyler Baze. "We've got three weeks until the next one," said winning trainer Craig Dollase, referring to the Strub Stakes on Feb. 3. "If he's good enough and stays sound, we'll think about the Big 'Cap (on March 3). But we don't want to get ahead of ourselves. One race at a time."
In Sunday's $150,000 El Encino Stakes for 4-year-old fillies, Sugar Shake led most of the way to a 1-length, upset win. Kris's Sis was second after heading the winner at the top of the lane. Wonder Lady Anne L finished third. Sugar Shake, a Kentucky-bred filly by Awesome Again, got the 1 1/16 mile on a fast track in 1:43.70 under David Flores. "This is a big filly," said winning trainer Bobby Frankel. "I don't even know that she was fit enough, to be honest with you, she's so fat. To be honest with you, I thought she was beat." The last time Frankel saddled the winner of the El Encino, it was Wild World, in 1974, with Bill Shoemaker up.
Bright Abundance broke last of 10 in Saturday's $75,000 Marshua's River Stakes for fillies and mares, moved up on the inside in the stretch run and was along in time to win by 1/2 length over the odds-on favorite Naissance Royale. Calla Lily finished third. Bright Abundance is a 6-year-old, Kentucky-bred mare by Quiet American. With Kent Desormeaux up for trainer Christophe Clement, she ran the 1 1/16 mile in 1:39.77 over firm turf.
Great Intentions opened up a big lead in Saturday's $65,000 Affectionately Handicap for fillies and mares, then had just enough in the stretch to hold of the late charge of Homerette and win by a neck. Victory Pool was just another neck back in third. Great Intentions, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred mare by Cat Thief, ran the 1 1/16 mile on the fast inner track in 1:44.35 with Norberto Arroyo Jr. up.
On Sunday, Sagamoon rallied by pace-setter Shelby's Memory entering the stretch in the $65,000 Busanda Stakes for 3-year-old fillies and drew clear, winning by 1 1/4 lengths over My Kitty. That Girl Is Mine finished third. Sagamoon, a New York-bred daughter of Malibu Moon, ran the 1 mile and 70 yards in 1:43.27 for jockey Eibar Coa and trainer Tom Albertrani.
Golden Gate Fields
Glorification jumped out to the early lead in Saturday's $50,000 Tiburon Handicap for 3-year-old fillies, held on well while nicely rated by jockey Jason Lumpkins, and wasn't seriously challenged in the lane, winning by 2 lengths over Storming Starlet. The favorite, Quite a Rush, raced evenly to finish third. Glorification is a Kentucky-bred filly by Buddah. She got the 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.34.
Mary Delaney won a three-way battle for the lead in Saturday's $50,000 Wishing Well Stakes for fillies and mares, opened up a clear lead turning for home and then held on to win by 1/2 length over Mocha Queen. Asyouwish was home third. Mary Delaney, a 4-year-old Hennessey filly, ran 6 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:09.37 with Julien Leparoux up for trainer Eddie Kenneally. "She was aggressive very early in the race," Kenneally said. "But Julien was able to get her to relax some. She's not the easiest filly to ride."
Tampa Bay Downs
Roman Candles rallied to the leaders turning for home in Saturday's $60,000 Pelican Stakes, then won a long battle to the wire, prevailing by 1/2 length over Wonone. D'artagnans'spirit finished third as the hard-to-type favorite. Roman Candles, a 5-year-old, Florida-bred son of Lite the Fuse, ran the 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.68 for jockey Jose Martinez Jr. "We plan to run him in stakes races after this," said Ray Stifano, speaking for trainer Lynne Scace.
Judiths Wild Rush just missed catching Your Bluffing in the final yards of Saturday's $60,000 Native Dancer Stakes, but then was elevated to the win through disqualification. The stewards, ruling interference in the final 40 yards of the race, reversed the top two, with Easy Red remaining on the third line of the tote board. Judiths Wild Rush is a 6-year-old, Kentucky-bred horse by Wild Rush. The 1 mile went in 1:36.43. "I can't believe they took me down," said Jose Caraballo, who rode Your Bluffing. "Before I came out, he came in."
Guiding Hand didn't need much guiding in Saturday's $50,000 Winsham Lad Handicap, dueling successfully for the lead and then drawing clear to win by 3 1/2 lengths over Real Dandy. Takin Issue was third under the wire and the favorite, Mr. Trieste, struggled home fifth. Guiding Hand, a 4-year-old, California-bred gelding by Helmsman, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:38.45 with Ken Tohill up.
Raspberry Wine stalked the pace in Saturday night's $50,000 Camelia Stakes, engaged pace-setter Calista Ridge for a long stretch duel and prevailed by a nose at the wire. Carl's Frosty Girl was well back in third. Raspberry Wine, a 5-year-old, Louisiana-bred daughter of Change Takes Time, ran 7 furlongs in 1:26 3/5 under Kerwin Clark.
Cort's P.B. led through most of Saturday night's $50,000 Cypress Stakes, gave up the advantage at mid-stretch and then came again to win by a head over Tensas Phone Call. Zarb's Dehar was third, far back of the first two. Cort's P.B., a 7-year-old, Louisiana-bred gelding by Huff, got the 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:25.79 under Elvis Perrodin.
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