The $400,000 New Orleans Handicap, for 4-year-olds and upward, is run at nine furlongs over the Crescent City oval and is the undercard highlight on Fair Grounds’ gala 14-race Louisiana Derby Day – which is also the closing day program of this 140th local racing season.
On the other hand, Pants On Fire made his seasonal debut a winning one by capturing a one-mile test at Gulfstream with a facile 4 1/2-length tally despite being kept three-wide in the lane. Trained by Kelly Breen, who saddled George and Lori Hall’s Ruler On Ice to win last spring’s Belmont Stakes, Pants On Fire will also be making his second start of the 2012 racing season.
Nationally prominent and current red-hot reinsman Javier Castellano has been named to handle the reins on Mission Impazible, who will shoulder the top impost of 122 pounds Sunday while Fair Grounds’ defending jockey champion Rosie Napravnik, already assured of her second straight local title, will be in the irons aboard Pants On Fire with 118 pounds assigned.
However, despite the allure of a face-off between two Louisiana Derby winners in Sunday’s New Orleans Handicap, this year’s running of the Crescent City classic for older Thoroughbreds promises to be far more than a two-horse race.
Zayat Stables’ Nehro, second by a neck to Pants On Fire in last seasons Louisiana Derby and subsequently runner-up in the Grade I Arkansas Derby and the 2011 Kentucky Derby, returned to competition to win a conditioned allowance race at Fair Grounds Feb. 25 by 7 1/4-length and appears primed to give his best effort in the New Orleans Handicap under the tutelage of Fair Grounds’ 10-time trainer champion Steve Asmussen.
Nehro, a son of 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft, breezed four furlongs Tuesday morning at Fair Grounds in 50.20 and will be ridden by 2010 Fair Grounds jockey champion Shaun Bridgmohan Sunday with 116 pounds.
Jay Em Ess Stable’s Redeemed, third in the Donn in his seasonal bow, closed out his 2011 campaign with an impressive 2 1/4-length victory in Aqueduct’s Grade III Discovery Handicap Nov. 19 after previously annexing Remington’s $400,000 Oklahoma Derby Oct. 16. Fair Grounds-based conditioner Paul McGee will saddle Redeemed in the New Orleans Handicap. Veteran Peruvian-born reinsman Edgar Prado will make up most of the second high weight of 120 pounds.
Dianne Cotter’s Toby’s Corner, winner of last year’s Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct but subsequently sidelined, has been prepared by trainer Graham Motion to make his second start of 2012 in the New Orleans Handicap after finishing third in Laurel’s Grade II General George Handicap Feb. 20. Eddie Castro will ride with a 117 pound assignment.
Windy Hill Farm’s Nates Mineshaft, hero of Fair Grounds’ Grade III Mineshaft Handicap Feb. 25 as the designed prep for the April 1 main event, has been trained up to Sunday’s race by conditioner Austin Smith and will carry 118 pounds including jockey Jesse Campbell.
Jim Tafel’s Fast Alex, runner-up in the Mineshaft ’Cap and the $100,000 Louisiana Handicap as the first leg of the local horse series Jan. 21, won Fair Grounds’ $75,000 Tenacious Handicap Dec. 17 and is trained by Greg Geier. The 5-year-old is assigned 116 pounds Sunday and will be ridden by Robby Albarado again.
Also, Mark Gorman, Neil Haymes and Sterling Stable’s Thirtyfirststreet, eighth in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap March 3 after being bumped into the rail in upper stretch, will invade from the West Coast for trainer Doug O’Neill and have French-born rider Julien Leparoux astride with 113 pounds assigned.
Lothenbach Stables’ Mister Marti Gras, who last visited the winner’s circle in Churchill’s in Grade III Ack Ack Handicap, last fall gets in the New Orleans Handicap with 114 pounds, and is to be saddled by conditioner Neil Pessin and be ridden by John Velazquez but is cross-entered Sunday.
SUNDAY’S GRADE II MERVIN MUNIZ MEMORIAL HANDICAP ALSO SET FOR FG’S FINALE – Augustin Stable’s Smart Bid, defending champion in the Grade II Mervin Muniz Memorial Handicap over Fair Grounds’ Stall-Wilson turf course, will head the field once again in the upcoming 20th anniversary edition of the Crescent City oval’s premier grass test for older horses.
Trained by Graham Motion, the 6-year-old son of Smart Strike must share the top impost of 121 pounds in the Mervin Muniz Memorial, run at about nine furlongs, and will be piloted by regular rider Edgar Prado.
The Peruvian-born reinsman was most recently astride Smart Bid in the Grade III Fair Grounds Handicap on Feb. 25 and the pair took down winning honors by a head in that designed prep for Sunday’s Muniz Memorial.
Also with that top impost Sunday is the Irish-bred Willyconker, owned by Kenney and Vielle Gardner, who will invade from the West Coast for California-based trainer Doug O’Neill and be ridden by Joel Rosario Sunday. In his last trip to the post March 3, Willyconker won Santa Anita’s Grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile by a neck.
Next in the Mervin Muniz Memorial weights is Andrews T & S Racing’s Mr. Vegas at 117 pounds after winning Fair Grounds’ Grade III Col. E. R. Bradley Handicap Jan. 21 and finishing second by a head behind Smart Bid in the $125,000 Fair Grounds ‘Cap on Louisiana Derby Preview Day Feb. 25.
Jockey Miguel Mena, whose idol was his native countryman Edgar Prado as a youngster, will be in the irons on the Richie Scherer-trained Mr. Vegas.
Also with the second high weight 117-pound impost in the Muniz Memorial is Connie Apotelos’ Papaw Bodie, winner of Sam Houston’s Grade III John B. Connally at last asking Jan. 28. Trained by Mike Maker, Papaw Bodie has Fair Grounds’ defending jockey champion Rosie Napravnik slated for the saddle.
Next in Sunday’s Muniz Memorial weights is Henry Pabst Trust’s Joinem at 116 pounds, most of which will be made up by Irish-born jockey James Graham. The 5-year-old gelding won his last start Feb. 11 over the Gulfstream grass and will be saddled by Irish-born conditioner David Carroll in the Mervin Muniz.
James Covello’s Swift Warrior, trained by John Terranova II, gets in with 115 pounds in Sunday’s Stall-Wilson turf test and will be ridden by French-born rider Julien Leparoux after finishing third by a half-length in Tampa Bay’s Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes Feb. 25 on the west coast of Florida.
Assigned 114 pounds for the upcoming Mervin Muniz Memorial are Wertheimer et Frere’s Slow Pace, Javier Castellano aboard for trainer Todd Pletcher; Gaillardia Racing’s Wilkinson, Brian Hernandez Jr. up for trainer Neil Howard; Team Block’s Suntracer, Shaun Bridgmohan aboard for Neil Pessin; Lothenbach Stables’ Mister Marti Gras, also trained by Pessin with Calvin Borel named but cross-entered in the New Orleans Handicap.
Getting in the Muniz Memorial with the lightest impost of 113 pounds is Gary and Mary West’s Casino Host, trained by Chad Brown with John Velazquez named to ride.