A measuring stick for trainers, the Kentucky Derby is the one major prize that has eluded Steve Asmussen.
The Hall of Famer has trained Preakness, Belmont Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Classic winners, orchestrating four Horse of the Year campaigns, and Asmussen will eventually pass Dale Baird to become the all-time win leader among North American conditioners.
His best finish in the Kentucky Derby came via a pair of runner-up finishes (2012 and 2017), and Asmussen has a contingent of Kentucky Derby hopefuls in 2021.
Midnight Bourbon improved his stock by winning the Jan. 16 Lecomte S. (G3) at Fair Grounds, posting a minor wire-to-wire upset.
Runner-up in the Iroquois S. (G3) and a non-threatening third in the Champagne S. (G1) in his final juvenile appearances, Midnight Bourbon wasn’t overlooked 1 1/16-mile Lecomte, leaving the starting gate as the 37-10 second choice among eight rivals. But it was surprising to see him upend 4-5 favorite Mandaloun, who was exposed finishing third in his first two-turn attempt.
Midnight Bourbon employed stalking tactics against stakes foes last fall, and didn’t lead wire-to-wire in his lone maiden win, but he flashed speed at the break with Joe Talamo. After leading by a couple of lengths on the first turn, he continued to dictate tempo on moderate splits (:48.99 and 1:13.57).
The pacesetter faced brief pressure from Proxy leaving the far turn, but Midnight Bourbon spurted clear again in upper stretch, rolling unopposed to a one-length decision. He earned a career-best 95 Brisnet Speed rating.
Midnight Bourbon stepped forward with an encouraging performance for Winchell Thoroughbreds, but it’s difficult to get too excited. The 3-year-old probably won’t have everything his own way in upcoming prep races.
Mandaloun experienced a wide trip in his stakes debut, and remains eligible to rebound with an improved showing next time, but he flopped in the Lecomte. After being in position to strike turning for home, the Into Mischief colt was all-out to get past Proxy in deep stretch, but that rival re-rallied to nip Mandaloun by a head on the wire for second.
Brad Cox has a deep roster of Kentucky Derby hopefuls, led by unbeaten presumptive juvenile champion Essential Quality, and many regarded Mandaloun in the same vein prior to the Lecomte.
Cox will send impressive maiden winner Caddo River to the Smarty Jones S. at Oaklawn Park, and debut maiden romper Prate was flattered when runner-up Blameworthy came back to win a salty maiden special weight on the Lecomte undercard.
Friday’s opening-day at Oaklawn features the Smarty Jones S., the first of four Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifiers at the Hot Springs, Arkansas track. It was be contested over a two-turn mile, utilizing the first of two finish lines at Oaklawn.
Seven are entered including Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint (G2) runner-up Cowan, who exits a second in the Springboard Mile S. on the main track at Remington Park.
Caddo River, who exits a 9 1/2-length maiden triumph at Churchill Downs in mid-November, owns a tactical advantage over the late-running Cowan. The Hard Spun colt has registered triple-digit Brisnet E1 and E2 Pace numbers in his last two starts.