Thoughts on the Louisiana Derby Day All-Stakes Pick 4

Thoughts on the Louisiana Derby Day All-Stakes Pick 4

Gun Runner winning the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) at Fair Grounds – Photo By Amanda Hodges Weir/Hodges Photography

Tomorrow afternoon, Fair Grounds will host a terrific fifteen-race card featuring eight stakes races, including four grade II races that comprise a Pick 4. The races in question are the New Orleans Handicap (gr. II), the Muniz Memorial Handicap (gr. II), the Fair Grounds Oaks (gr. II), and the Louisiana Derby (gr. II). The sequence is filled with wide-open races that offer the potential for great handicapping value, and the Pick 4 payoff could be a nice one. Here are some of my thoughts on the races…

In the New Orleans Handicap, I think Eagle is the most likely winner. He’s finished first or second in each of his last five starts and has been very consistent in terms of Beyer speed figures–his last five figures of 96, 93, 97, 97, and 99, consistently higher and consistently superior to those of his rivals. Last time out in the Mineshaft Handicap (gr. III) against just three other horses, Eagle was attempting to close ground into a slow pace and failed by just a head. With a larger field and better pace setup tomorrow, I think Eagle will be very tough to beat, and could be a possible single in the Pick 4.

The other two horses that I would consider including are International Star and Majestic Harbor, who have taken turns beating and being beaten by Eagle and by each other in their last two starts. In the January 16th Louisiana Stakes, International Star settled behind Eagle early on before kicking clear in the homestretch to beat him by 1 1/2 lengths while Majestic Harbor finished fifth, and in the February 20th Mineshaft Handicap, Majestic Harbor turned the tables to win by a head in gate-to-wire fashion over Eagle, while International Star finished fourth. If you believe that the rail was the place to be that day at Fair Grounds (you can make a case that the rail was much better than the outside paths), then it’s easy to envision the wide-running Eagle turning the tables on the ground-saving Majestic Harbor in the New Orleans.

However, it’s also easy to envision International Star rebounding to his best form and giving Eagle a stiff challenge. Prior to the Mineshaft, International Star was unbeaten in four starts at Fair Grounds, and with a much larger field in the New Orleans, he could get a better pace setup and return to his winning form.

A potential live longshot is Mobile Bay, who has cracked the trifecta in ten of his eleven starts on dirt. Last time out, he rallied from last to win the Maxxam Gold Cup by a neck, and last year, he showed a lot of quality winning four stakes races, including the Super Derby (gr. II). He’s facing much tougher competition today, but even if you don’t include him in your Pick 4, he’s definitely worth a look for the trifecta or superfecta.

In the Muniz Memorial Handicap, it’s definitely hard to look past Chocolate Ride, who won this race last year and is 6-for-7 with one runner-up effort over the Fair Grounds turf course. On February 20th, he won the Fair Grounds Handicap (gr. III) over this same course and distance, defeating Roman Approval by three-quarters of a length, and having top jockey Florent Geroux in the saddle is a major plus as well.

My only concern is that as good as Chocolate Ride is, he hasn’t been all that dominant in his last two starts, and he’s facing a very large and talented field this Saturday, including Change of Command, who is expected to serve as a rabbit.

There are a few different horses that I can envision pulling off an upset, including Roman Approval, who was closing the gap against Chocolate Ride in both the Colonel Bradley (gr. III) and the Fair Grounds Handicap. Another contender is Closing Bell, who finished seventh in the Donn Handicap (gr. I) on dirt last time out. He showed good form on turf last year, running second in the Secretariat Stakes (gr. I) and fourth in the Belmont Derby (gr. I), and a small step forward this year could put him in the mix.

But perhaps the most intriguing upset candidate is World Approval, who came off a layoff to win a nine-furlong allowance race at Gulfstream Park in the unbelievable time of 1:44.98 seconds. Now, the course was fast that day, and World Approval got a great trip setting slow fractions, but he also ran the final three furlongs in a spectacular :33.50 seconds, a sign of exceptional talent. World Approval had shown flashes of talent last year, winning the American Derby (gr. III) and Saranac Stakes (gr. III), and if he can transfer his Gulfstream form to Fair Grounds, I think he can pull off the upset.

In the Fair Grounds Oaks, I like Midnight On Oconee best of the fillies coming out of the Rachel Alexandra Stakes (gr. II). In that race, Midnight On Oconee had a wide trip while chasing a fast pace and led past the eighth pole before tiring to finish second behind the late-running longshot Venus Valentine. In a race that looks almost completely paceless on paper, Midnight On Oconee should be able to secure the early lead and take this field a long way on the front end, but I think Adore might be able to catch her. The daughter of Big Brown has won her last two starts in impressive fashion, including an 8.5-furlong allowance race at Oaklawn on February 21st by four lengths. For that performance, she received a Beyer speed figure of 79, which puts her right in the mix against Midnight On Oconee, Venus Valentine, and Stageplay.

Speaking of Stageplay, she didn’t fire when fifth in the Rachel Alexandra, but she got a very wide trip while trying to make an early move into a fast pace. She could appreciate a slower pace on Saturday and might rebound in a big way; if she does, she could return to winning form at a decent price.

One filly that might be worth playing against is Land Over Sea, who has finished second to the champion Songbird in three of her last four starts. However, the only poor effort of her career came when shipping across the country to contest the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I), and as a closer in a race without much early speed, Land Over Sea could find herself compromised trying to close into a slow pace while making her first start at an unfamiliar track. Her chances should certainly be respected, but I think Midnight On Oconee, Adore, and Stageplay might have better chances at victory.

In the Louisiana Derby, I like Gun Runner best of the horses coming out of the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II). In the Risen Star, Gun Runner made an early move into a fast pace and still hung on to win in game fashion, and I think he’s ready to take another step forward while making his second start off a layoff. Greenpointcrusader deserves respect off his win in the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) last year and runner-up effort to Mohaymen in the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III) on January 27th, as does Mo Tom–third in the Risen Star despite some traffic trouble–and the promising allowance winners Battery and Dazzling Gem, who could be in the mix for victory if they take a step forward tomorrow. I also respect the chances of Candy My Boy, who set a fast pace in the Risen Star before tiring to finish fourth. If he gets away with more modest fractions in the Louisiana Derby, he could take this field a long way on the front end, although Gun Runner is still my clear choice to win, and I wouldn’t be afraid to single him.

Some friends of mine on the Bloodhorse.com blog Unlocking Winners were discussing the Fair Grounds Pick 4, and for the purpose of constructing a ticket (or multiple tickets) on a $36 budget, here’s what I came up with:

TICKET #1 – $24
Race 7: International Star, Eagle
Race 8: Roman Approval, Chocolate Ride, Closing Bell, World Approval
Race 9: Adore
Race 10: Gun Runner, Greenpointcrusader, Battery, Candy My Boy, Mo Tom, Dazzling Gem

TICKET #2 – $12
Race 7: International Star, Eagle
Race 8: Roman Approval, Chocolate Ride, Closing Bell, World Approval
Race 9: Midnight On Oconee, Stageplay, Land Over Sea
Race 10: Gun Runner

Good luck to all!

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to sign up for email newsletters and special offers from The Turf Board! Also, if you’re a fan of horse racing history, please check out my upcoming book Lost to the Ages: 10 Forgotten Champions of U.S. Horse Racingscheduled for release later this year!

Follow J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman"):

J. Keeler Johnson is a writer, blogger, videographer, and all-around horse racing enthusiast who was drawn to the sport by Curlin’s quest to become North America’s richest racehorse. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He lives in Wisconsin and also writes for the Bloodhorse.com blog Unlocking Winners.

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