May 20, 2022

Three points to ponder: 2022 Lecomte

Epicenter wins the inaugural Gun Runner Stakes at Fair Grounds (Photo by Lou Hodges, Jr./Hodges Photography)

The Road to the Kentucky Derby heats up at Fair Grounds Saturday, as the $200,000 Lecomte (G3) will have an impact on the top of the points leaderboard.

Will Pappacap confirm his position as pro tem points leader? Will Epicenter overtake him for the top spot? Or might another up-and-comer snare the 10 points to the winner, and add to the crowd cramming the upper echelon of the leaderboard?

Here are my points to ponder for the Lecomte:

1. Pappacap as Breeders’ Cup Juvenile barometer

A couple of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) also-rans have come back to place in scoring races – ninth Barossa was later a distant third in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2), and dead-heat fifth Oviatt Class returned for an eye-catching third in the Sham (G3). But the Lecomte promises to be a still more informative barometer of the Breeders’ Cup. Juvenile runner-up Pappacap chased home Corniche not only at Del Mar, but also two back in the American Pharoah (G1), and thereby ranks as the nearest proxy to the likely divisional champion.

Unlike the 2020 Juvenile, which looked exceptional even at the time, the 2021 renewal didn’t strike me quite as much. For starters, the injury-forced withdrawal of Jack Christopher leaves a huge question mark. Rattle N Roll was another notable absentee, and he’s just one of Ken McPeek’s deep pool of classic hopefuls.

That said, Pappacap has a reasonable expectation of building on whatever he achieved at two. After all, the Mark Casse pupil is by record-setting freshman sire Gun Runner and out of a mare who achieved her Grade 3 placing as a four-year-old. The question is whether he’ll pick up where he left off here, or how much the Lecomte will end up being a building block for bigger targets on the trail.

Although it’s a more circuitous piece of form, note that Call Me Midnight also has a collateral tie-in to the Breeders’ Cup. He was a better-than-appears second in the Keeneland maiden won by Giant Game, the next-out third to Corniche and Pappacap in the Juvenile. Call Me Midnight was arguably disadvantaged by having to ease back in traffic at Keeneland, while Giant Game was able to parlay his post into an in-the-clear trip attending a slow pace. If their posts had been reversed, Call Me Midnight might well have finished closer.

2. Similar trip, similar result for Epicenter?

There’s plenty to like about Epicenter’s attacking style, on display in both his Churchill maiden win and in the Gun Runner S. Yet the Steve Asmussen trainee enjoyed very similar scenarios of mixing it up with Surfer Dude, putting him away, and easily holding sway over a closer. The Gun Runner was even more emphatic, as a gauge of his two-turn ability, and since he drubbed a solid yardstick in Tejano Twist.

Epicenter projects another pace-prompting trip, with familiar rival Surfer Dude presumably going forward again on the rail. But in the Lecomte, he’ll have to deal with another category of beast, close stalkers who are eligible to cover his move and threaten in the stretch. This is a case of the waters getting deeper, and Epicenter will probably have to improve again to win.

3. Cyberknife and Trafalgar on the learning curve

In last year’s Lecomte, the Brad Cox-trained Mandaloun was overturned as the odds-on favorite, added blinkers next time in the Risen Star (G2), and promptly rebounded. Cox’s hope on Saturday, Cyberknife, hopes that putting the blinkers back on will fast-track that learning curve. But Cyberknife has been much more of a project than Mandaloun so far, and his high head carriage adds to an ungainly air on the track.  

At the same time, Cyberknife has shown raw ability, and like fellow Gun Runner colt Pappacap, he has a right to excel with maturity if he can put it all together. In a most promising debut over a six-furlong trip that should be the bare minimum for him, a blinkered Cyberknife was able to travel just off a torrid :21.56 opening quarter at Churchill Downs, put his head in front through a half in :44.65, and edged a half-length clear in 1:09.64. Unfortunately, he also lugged in abruptly, bumped pacesetter Hoist the Gold, and got himself disqualified.

Cyberknife made another costly error, when blinkers-off, in his next Churchill maiden attempt. In the process of rallying to challenge Classic Moment, he lost the plot when Martin Garcia switched to right-handed urging, he lurched to the left, and lost all momentum in second. Cyberknife broke through at Fair Grounds in his first route race, and first with Florent Geroux, but nearly threw it away when letting his daylight lead evaporate.

Blinkers back on is a 38% move for Cox, who described Cyberknife to Fair Grounds publicity:

“It’s all mental with him. It’s nothing we can really fix with him in the mornings. He’s a colt that has always been a little tough to handle. He’s not straightforward. He’s the kind of horse who requires a good hand. He’s very immature. I think the talent is there, but he’s got to take a step forward mentally, and I think he will. He just needs to race and get some miles underneath him in the afternoons. I think he’s going to be a player in the three-year-old division.”

The other potentially smart stakes debutant, Trafalgar, isn’t as much of a challenging case, but he too has had his moments. Off a beat slow in his first two starts, the Al Stall pupil regrouped for a fine second to Classic Causeway at Saratoga, and rallied from far back to win at Churchill.

Trafalgar appeared to outgrow that habit when breaking smartly in his recent Fair Grounds allowance, and showed tactical versatility to stalk-and-pounce with authority. Only he then idled in front, and had to scramble late to see off Cox’s Naval Aviator in a desperate photo.

Although Trafalgar is a son of Lord Nelson, who made his mark as a sprinter, Stall sees him more in the mold of his sire line – Pulpit and A.P. Indy. Indeed, there is something “Indyish” about his markings, and the way he carries himself.