Edited Fair Grounds Release — Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Epicenter will be heavily favored when he goes postward Saturday against eight rivals in hopes of winning three of the four points races on the local Road to the Kentucky Derby at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots.
To accomplish this feat in the $1 million Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (G2), the improving son of Not This Time will have to navigate 1 3/16 miles–the longest domestic prep on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
“First, I want to say how pleased I am with the distance of the series (Lecomte, Risen Star, Louisiana Derby) for the 3-year-olds here,” trainer Steve Asmussen said.
“It was important for him (Epicenter) to start at the mile then progress like he has through the longer distances and now we get to this race and the mile and three-sixteenths could be a separator. He has progressed well through each of these steps and his progress has been very encouraging up to this point and he will just have to prove it again on Saturday.”
Epicenter has thrived at Fair Grounds this winter, winning the Gun Runner Stakes on Dec. 26 in his final start as a 2-year-old before losing by a determined head in the Lecomte Stakes (G3). He parlayed that effort into an easy front-running score last month in the Risen Star (G2) under Saturday’s rider Joel Rosario. The duo will leave from post six.
The Louisiana Derby has a total of 170 points up for grabs by way of a 100-40-20-10 dispersal to the top four finishers. Epicenter has accumulated 64 points already securing his spot in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby.
Ron Winchell and Asmussen also share the favorite in the Twinspires.com Fair Grounds Oaks in champion Echo Zulu.
Winchell, however, will have his eye on Fair Grounds from afar as he plans to be in attendance as his 4-year-old millionaire and 2021 Louisiana Derby runner-up Midnight Bourbon goes for a $12 million purse Saturday in the Dubai World Cup at Meydan.
Asmussen and Winchell have won two previous Louisiana Derbies together, scoring in 2008 with Pyro and again with Gun Runner in 2016. Asmussen’s first of three Louisiana Derby wins came with Fifty Stars in 2001.
There is one horse on the grounds who defeated Epicenter this winter – Peter Cantrell and Benjamin Gase’s Call Me Midnight, winner of the Lecomte Stakes at a robust 28.50-to-1 under the meet’s leading rider James Graham. Epicenter did all the dirty work that day, carving out fast early fractions of :23 2/5 and :47, setting the table for Call Me Midnight’s late run.
The Keith Desormeaux trainee skipped the Risen Star last month, his conditioner hoping to have a fresher horse for the rigors of what he hopes is a journey on the Triple Crown trail.
“Right after the Lecomte, it seemed like a no brainer to come back in the Risen Star, but after talking it over with Pete (Cantrell) and putting all the factors out there to weigh, which included a heavy campaign as a 2-year-old and the great response he had after the time off he had between the Kentucky Jockey Club and the Lecomte, plus the fact that we’re not only planning on the Louisiana Derby but the Kentucky Derby, we just thought that, this is what the facts are telling us,” Desormeaux explained.
Desormeaux is confident that Call Me Midnight (6-1) has used his works to stay sharp, especially his March 12 drill which Desormeaux considers considerably better than the 6 furlongs 1:14.00 time reported.
“In the three-quarters work (March 12), I think the clockers missed him,” Desormeaux said. “He begins that work right in front of me and ends the work directly across from it, so it’s hard for me to miss. I thought that work was phenomenal.
“I’ve been at the Fair Grounds awhile, and I don’t think I’ve ever had one work 12 and change. He went from the quarter-pole to the wire in :23 and change with a great gallop out. It was just awesome. That was what I considered my last major work for him.
“This week was just to stretch out and have some fun and he responded with a :47 ⅖ (March 19), he finished up in :23 flat and galloped out :59 ⅘. He’s just happy. He came back to the barn after that work and it seemed similar to a gallop. It’s hard to get a horse who can do these kinds of things and he seems to be in fine form right now so we’re excited.”
Second choice in the field at 5-1 is Sumaya U.S. Stables’ Pioneer of Medina. The son of Pioneer of the Nile ships back to New Orleans for the third time this winter for trainer Todd Pletcher and gets his third different rider in jockey Tyler Gaffalione.
Despite a fourth-place finish in the Risen Star, Pioneer of Medina has improved his speed figures in each of his six lifetime starts.
Co-third choice in the field at 6-1 is Breeders’ Futurity (G1) winner Rattle N Roll for Lucky Seven Stable and trainer Kenny McPeek.
Rattle N Roll and Galt (8-1) both exit an eventful Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream on March 5. Rattle Roll finished sixth in his seasonal debut, while Galt escaped injury after losing his rider in a spill turning for home.
“Gulfstream has always been for horses who have been a little quicker and bounce over it,” McPeek said. “I think Fair Grounds is more of a stayer’s track. Unfortunately, Rattle N Roll was a couple of weeks behind schedule getting ready for the Risen Star, so we brought Smile Happy (finished second) instead.
“We just need (Kentucky Derby) points. That’s all I’m worried about. This horse needs a set-up. Things kind of have to unfold. I don’t know how this race is going to set-up for him. We expect him to run well though.”
Kupuna and Zozos, a pair of allowance winners making their stakes debuts, are both listed at 8-1 on the morning line.
Owned by Wayne Sanders and Larry Hirsch and trained by Bret Calhoun, Kupuna has worked multiple times with Calhoun’s Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) contender Hidden Connection, including a bullet :58 for five furlongs back on March 11.
Kupuna enters the Louisiana Derby off a second-place finish in allowance company to Cyberknife on the Risen Star undercard. Cyberknife, trained by Brad Cox, is slated for a start in the Arkansas Derby next month.
“What I’ve liked about my horse is his gradual, steady progression and his work here the other day,” Calhoun said. “He showed that he was a much better horse than the last time he ran. He’s an up-and-comer. A longshot.
‘He doesn’t have the resume that the rest of them have, but I’ve seen it a lot over the years, the 3-year-old that’s developing this time of year is the one that’s able to step up in those spots. On paper, with Zozos drawn inside of Epicenter, tactically I like the way it could set up for us.”
Calhoun won this race with another late developing 3-year-old making his stakes debut in the Louisiana Derby. By My Standards struck at 22.50-1 in the 2018 edition of the race off of just a maiden win in his fourth lifetime start.
Zozos, a debut winner sprinting at Fair Grounds, burst on the scene in his second start capturing a two-turn allowance race at Oaklawn by 10 lengths.
“I was a little bit taken back by his first race, in all honesty,” Cox said. “I thought he was primed up for his first run. He ran well and was able to win, but it wasn’t quite as flashy as I thought he might be, but what he showed us is that he was going to be a better horse going longer.
“I brought him back on short rest, shipped him up to Oaklawn right before the race, which is something I normally don’t do much of, and I thought he was a lot better going longer.
“What we saw in his second start was what we expected to see in his first start, based on the works in the morning before that debut. He responded really well, we shipped back to Fair Grounds right after that race, targeted this race ever since and he’s trained well, and we’re going to find out where we are with him.”
Zozos, owned by Barry and Joni Butzow, is expected to be close to the pace breaking from the two-hole under Florent Geroux, who teamed up with Cox to win this race in 2020 with Wells Bayou.
The Louisiana Derby participants have certainly been embattled in the headlines the last few years. While only two winners (Black Gold 1924, Grindstone 1996) from the race have gone on to capture the Kentucky Derby, three others – Funny Cide (2003), Country House (2019) and Mandaloun (2021) triumphed after losses in the Louisiana. Both Country House and Mandaloun won the Kentucky Derby via disqualification.
The field for the $1 million Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (race 12 at 5:44 CST):
- Norman Stables’ Silent Power (Gerard Melancon/Scott Gelner, 50-1 ML), has eight lifetime starts which is highest in the field;
- Barry and Joni Butzow’s Zozos (Florent Geroux/Brad Cox, 8-1 ML), undefeated colt making his stakes debut;
- Peter L Cantrell and Benjamin Gase’s Call Me Midnight (James Graham/Keith Desormeaux, 6-1 ML), longshot winner of the Lecomte Stakes in January;
- Willis Horton Racing LLC’s Curly Tail (Colby Hernandez/Dallas Stewart, 30-1 ML), recent maiden winner at Oaklawn Park in his last start;
- Wayne Sanders and Larry Hirsch’s Kupuna (Reylu Gutierrez/Bret Calhoun, 8-1 ML), making his graded stakes debut in here;
- Winchell Thoroughbreds Epicenter (Joel Rosario/Steve Asmussen, 7-5 ML), winner of the Gun Runner and Risen Star already this meet;
- Sumaya U S Stables’ Pioneer of Medina (Tyler Gaffalione/Todd Pletcher, 5-1 ML), shipping in for his third race in a row in New Orleans this winter;
- OXO Equine’s Galt (Junior Alvarado/William Mott, 8-1 ML), hoping to give his trainer his third win in this race, the last coming in 1991 with Richman;
- Lucky Seven Stables’ Rattle N Roll (Brian Hernandez Jr./Kenny McPeek, 6-1 ML), winner of the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland as a juvenile.
All horses will carry 122 pounds