This year’s $400,000 New Orleans Handicap will again be run on Louisiana Derby Day, which also is Closing Day of Fair Grounds’ 2011-2012 racing season.
Pants On Fire, trained by Kelly Breen, made his 2012 bow a successful one with a facile 4 1/2-length score in an allowance and $80,000 optional claiming race at Gulfstream March 3.
However, despite the allure of a face-off between two Louisiana Derby winners in the New Orleans Handicap, this year’s 88th renewal of Fair Grounds’ richest event for older horses on dirt is more than a two-horse race.
Zayat Stable’s Nehro, second by a neck to Pants On Fire in last season’s Louisiana Derby and subsequently runner-up in Oaklawn’s Grade I Arkansas Derby and then the Kentucky Derby, returned to competition to win a conditioned allowance race at Fair Grounds Feb. 25 by 7 1/4-lengths and appears primed to give his best effort in the New Orleans Handicap under the tutelage of Fair Grounds’ 10-time training champion Steve Asmussen.
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. Conditioner Tony Dutrow will be the trainer of record when Redeemed makes his expected start in the New Orleans Handicap.
Dianne Cotter’s Toby’s Corner, winner of last year’s Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct but subsequently sidelined, is being 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.
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, is being pointed for the New Orleans ’Cap by trainer Austin Smith.
Also, Mark Gorman, Neil Haymes and Sterling Stable’s Thirtyfirststreet, eighth in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap after being bumped into the rail in upper stretch, is likely to invade from the West Coast to contest the New Orleans Handicap for trainer Doug O’Neill.
Jim Tafel’s Fast Alex, runner-up in the Mineshaft ’Cap and the $100,000 Louisiana Handicap as the first leg of the older horse series Jan. 21, won Fair Grounds’ $75,000 Tenacious Handicap Dec. 17 and trainer Greg Geier is pointing the son of Afleet Alex for the local highlight.
Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider’s Cease, an Al Stall Jr. trainee who won Sam Houston’s $150,000 Maxxam Gold Cup March 3, and Lothanbach Stables’ Mister Marti Gras, trained by Neil Pessin and fifth in the Mineshaft, are expected to be cross-entered in the New Orleans Handicap on the main track as well as Fair Grounds’ Grade II Mervin Muniz Memorial Handicap over the Stall-Wilson turf course on the same day.
GRADE II MERVIN MUNIZ MEMORIAL ’CAP ALSO SLATED FOR CLOSING DAY – Augustin Stable’s Smart Bid, defending champion in the Grade II Mervin Muniz Memorial Handicap over the Stall-Wilson turf course, is expected to head the field once again in the upcoming 20th anniversary edition of Fair Grounds’ premier turf test for older horses.
Trained by Graham Motion, Smart Bid won the Grade III Fair Grounds Handicap Feb. 25 over the local lawn as the prep for the $400,000 Muniz Memorial on Louisiana Derby Day April 1, closing day of the current Crescent City racing season.
Also expected to contest the Mervin Muniz Memorial ’Cap is Andrews T & S Racing’s Mr. Vegas, a Richie Scherer trainee who finished second by a head to Smart Bid in the Fair Grounds ‘Cap and won the Grade III Col. E. R. Bradley Handicap here Jan. 21 as the first leg of the local grass series.
The Irish-bred Willyconker, owned by Kenney and Vielle Gardner and trained by Doug O’Neill, is expected to invade from the West Coast for the Mervin Muniz after capturing Santa Anita’s Grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile over the California grass on March 3.
Others slated at this time for the Muniz Memorial include Team Block’s Suntracer, trained by Neil Pessin and most recently fourth in the Col. Bradley; Sam Houston’s Grade III John B. Connally winner Papaw Bodie, owned by Connie Apostelos and trained by Mike Maker; and Wertheimer et Frere’s Slow Pace, Kentucky-bred but French campaigned last year to win Maisons-Laffitte’s $79,000 Prix de Surenes before coming under the guidance of Todd Pletcher this season.
James Covello’s Swift Warrior, trained by John Terranova II and third in the Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes Feb. 25; Henry Pabst Trust’s Joinem, trained by David Carroll and a winner over the Gulfstream grass in his last start Feb. 11; and Resolute Group Stables’ Teaks North, conditioned by Tony Dutrow and fifth in the $150,000 Sunshine Millions Turf in his last start Jan. 28, complete the list of those likely for the Mervin Muniz Memorial at this time.
FINNEGANS WAKE WORKS OVER FG TRACK – Donegal Racing’s Finnegans Wake, third behind Hansen in the Grade III Gotham at Aqueduct earlier this month, worked five furlongs in :59 3/5, breezing, at Fair Grounds on Saturday. It was the Powerscourt colt’s first official move over the surface since arriving here from South Florida’s Palm Meadows Training Center mid-week.
“I thought the work was perfect,” said Tammy Fox, the New Orleans native and wife of trainer Dale Romans who was aboard for the breeze. “He did everything that Dale wanted me to do with him. He handled the track really good. He was looking around a little bit but that’s what he does. He finished really well and did it all on his own.”
Finnegans Wake worked through even 12-second splits of :12, :24, :36 and :48 before finishing the final eighth in :11 4/5.
Fox said Finnegans Wake will gallop just before the renovation break for the rest of this week.
COMISKY’S HUMOR ‘PERFECT’ IN MILE WORK – Mike Munna Racing Stable’s Comisky’s Humor, winner of consecutive sprints over the Fair Grounds main track by a combined 18 lengths, worked one mile in 1:50, breezing, with regular rider Richard Eramia up, in advance of his first attempt around two turns in the 1 1/8-mile Louisiana Derby.
“We pretty much two-minute-licked him and let him finish,” trainer Ron Faucheux said. “I thought it was perfect; exactly what we wanted. Richard said he felt good and thought he really relaxed. As long as he comes out of it OK and looks good tomorrow morning we’ll go ahead and enter.”
Asked which post position he’d prefer, Faucheux answered “one” without hesitation and added that there’s no reason to pretend their strategy might be anything other than to go to the lead and see how long they can hold on.
“He’s got to go,” Faucheaux said. “No secret there. He’ll be in front at some point, we know that much.”
OTHER SATURDAY DERBY WORKS – Gary & Mary West’s Fire Alarm, an entry-level allowance winner earlier in March, worked four furlongs in :50 1/5, breezing, for trainer Bret Calhoun…West Point Thoroughbreds’ Flashy Sunrise, a maiden who has finished second in consecutive Fair Grounds maiden special weights, worked a half-mile in :48 3/5, breezing, for trainer Dallas Stewart.
CIGAR STREET TO WORK SUNDAY – Jake Ballis’s Cigar Street, a dominant 13 ¾-length maiden winner earlier this month, will breeze Sunday immediately following the renovation break, according to Sue Margolis, wife of trainer Steve Margolis, who is at Turfway Park today. Steve Margolis said earlier this week that a decision on Cigar Street’s status for the Louisiana Derby would not be made until after this weekend’s work.
REMINDER FOR LOCAL MEDIA: POST POSITION DRAW MONDAY – The Louisiana Derby post position draw will be held Monday at 11:30 a.m. in the Fair Grounds paddock. Trainers of prominent entrants will be available for one-one-one interviews following the draw. All credentialed media are invited for the 15-minute post draw and press conference.
‘NO FAVORITES ALLOWED’ SEMINARS – National Handicapping Championship winner Michael Beychok will be the special guest handicapper at the weekly “No Favorites Allowed” seminar on Fair Grounds Oaks Day, March 31. The following morning, Churchill Downs Racing Analyst Jill Byrne will join Louisiana Downs track announcer Travis Stone for a special Louisiana Derby Day seminar. The seminars, held in The Phoenix room on the Grandstand’s third floor, are free and open to handicappers of all skill levels, including beginners. Along with moderator Jim Mulvihill, panelists focus on picking live horses beyond the morning line favorites.
FRIDAY POST TIMES AND WAGERING MENU – Fair Grounds has set post times for Friday’s historic 18-race program, which kicks off at 12:40 p.m. There will be a one-hour break between Race 9 and Race 10, from 4:50-5:50 p.m. CDT. Also, there will be two additional Pick Fours, beginning on Race 6 and Race 11, in addition to the usual Pick Four wagers starting on Race 2 and Race 15. Starlight Racing prices will go into effect at 3:30 p.m. and the Miller Lite Beer Garden will open at 5 p.m. The complete post times can be found with Friday’s entries.