December 4, 2023

Five points to ponder: 2021 Louisiana Derby

Medina Spirit
Medina Spirit (right), holds off Roman Centurian (left) and Hot Rod Charlie (middle) in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes © BENOIT PHOTO

“At this point of your three-year-old year, you either get better or you get beat.”

Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen summed up the Kentucky Derby (G1) picture in general, and the state of Saturday’s $1 million Louisiana Derby (G2) in particular, in that gem of a quote for Fair Grounds publicity.

Developing sophomores by definition produce a fluid situation, as illustrated by the two local preps for the Louisiana Derby. The top three from the Jan. 16 Lecomte (G3) also swept the trifecta in the Feb. 13 Risen Star (G2), but in reverse order, and new circumstances on Saturday add fresh variables.

Befitting its role as the first scoring race worth the maximum points toward the Kentucky Derby – the 100-40-20-10 scale – the Louisiana Derby has attracted a classy Californian to do battle with the established local players.

Here are my points to ponder:

1. Hot Rod Charlie ran a bang-up race in his Lewis loss.

Although beaten in a three-way photo by Medina Spirit and Roman Centurian, who came back to finish a distant second and fourth in the San Felipe (G2), Hot Rod Charlie turned in a stronger effort in the Jan. 30 Robert B. Lewis (G3) than it looked. The Doug O’Neill pupil was conceding a recency edge, since he hadn’t raced since his astonishing second at 94-1 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) to Essential Quality.

And on a tiring Santa Anita surface labeled good, Hot Rod Charlie expended energy to advance into the teeth of Medina Spirit’s strenuous pace. In contrast, late-running Roman Centurian launched one run. Medina Spirit rightly received praise for sticking on gamely, but Hot Rod Charlie persevered in the thick of a tough spot between foes. Despite being bumped by Roman Centurian, Hot Rod Charlie held his ground and missed by all of a neck and a nose.

O’Neill wanted to give him extra time to rebound from a grueling comeback, one reason the Louisiana Derby entered calculations. Hot Rod Charlie is taking a hike in trip, from 1 1/16 miles to 1 3/16 miles, but the half-brother to champion sprinter Mitole figures to inherit sufficient stamina from his Preakness (G1)-winning sire, Oxbow.

Aside from his formlines being of interest, it could be significant how much Hot Rod Charlie improved on the move from Santa Anita to Keeneland for the Breeders’ Cup. Might a similar leap forward arise in his New Orleans getaway?

2. Mandaloun was pretty decisive in the Risen Star.

After his wide-trip third as the favorite in the Lecomte, Mandaloun’s form reversal in the Risen Star is generally attributed to his spiffy new blinkers. Indeed, regular rider Florent Geroux commented on his improved focus.

At the same time, it’s worth remembering the broader context. The Juddmonte blueblood was 2-for-2 in sprints before making his stakes and two-turn debut in the Lecomte – precisely the scenario when his inexperience could be caught out.

For the same reason, Mandaloun was eligible to do better in his second route try in the Risen Star anyway, as a matter of experience, regardless of an equipment change. Blinkers had the desired effect, but the more contested pace helped, and he’s on the upswing overall. Trainer Brad Cox has described Mandaloun’s two most recent works as “phenomenal,” renewing the impression of a three-year-old thriving as the Derby trail heats up.

With that profile, Mandaloun has a solid case to become the seventh Risen Star winner in the past two decades to capture the Louisiana Derby. Repent (2002), Pyro (2008), Gun Runner (2016), and Girvin (2017) turned the double, while Friesan Fire (2009) and International Star (2015) swept the series beginning with the Lecomte.

3. Will blinkers do the trick for Proxy?

Fans of Proxy have a right to argue that the Lecomte and Risen Star runner-up is eligible to turn the corner by adding blinkers himself in the Louisiana Derby. It’s true that the Godolphin homebred has been on the learning curve throughout his Fair Grounds sojourn, going back to his maiden and allowance wins. And judging by how he lost position heading into the far turn of the Risen Star, before belatedly regaining his traction down the lane, Proxy definitely warrants a headgear experiment.

Yet unlike Mandaloun, Proxy has less of an excuse for his waywardness considering his greater route experience for trainer Michael Stidham. In other words, can blinkers alone work the oracle, or is the Tapit colt going to find another way to be idiosyncratic? And if blinkers could have leveled the Risen Star playing field, is Proxy progressing at a rate like Mandaloun to be a match for him here? Can the added sixteenth of a mile make that much of a difference in Proxy’s favor?

4. Midnight Bourbon needs to find his pace comfort zone.

Midnight Bourbon found that scenario in the Lecomte, where he was comfortable on the front end, but not in the Risen Star. It’s less clear if he’ll regain it on Saturday.

Midnight Bourbon will have to deal with Risen Star pacesetter Rightandjust again, a complication he didn’t face in the Lecomte. On the other hand, as John Mucciolo mentioned in his Louisiana Derby tipsheet on, Rightandjust is drawn much more favorably here (post 2 as opposed to post 11). Accordingly he can get away with an easier time than when gunning it to clear them in the Risen Star.

As a result, Midnight Bourbon’s playbook is easier too. The Asmussen pupil won’t have to chase as fast early as he did last time, or if Rightandjust is too lackadaisical, Midnight Bourbon can decide to take over without burning himself up in the process.

5. Run Classic aims to be up to ‘Standards.’

In 2019, By My Standards became the first horse in 15 years – since Bob Baffert’s Wimbledon (2004) – to win the Louisiana Derby straight off a maiden score. Now his trainer, Bret Calhoun, tries the same gambit with Run Classic.

Both Calhoun colts won 1 1/16-mile maidens impressively on the Risen Star undercard, with a similar stalking style. Unlike By My Standards, who broke his maiden in his fourth attempt, Run Classic won second time out, following a runner-up effort in a salty sprint debut on Lecomte Day.

While that record speaks to his budding talent, tackling this contest – in just his third start – is ambitious. Run Classic’s stepping up dramatically in class, and at a distance that might stretch him. The son of champion sprinter Runhappy doesn’t get much help from his dam’s side either. Perhaps the $475,000 OBS March purchase can tap into paternal grandsire Super Saver, the 2010 Kentucky Derby winner.