Four Kentucky Derby (G1) hopefuls trained by BOB BAFFERT have been moved to other trainers while Baffert continues to fight his 90-day suspension by Churchill Downs with regards to a positive test from Medina Spirit in last year’s Kentucky Derby.
One of the horses moved is Canadian/Ontario-bred MESSIER, Canadian Thoroughbred‘s favourite for the Aug. 21 Queen’s Plate. Messier, headed for the Santa Anita Derby next week, is now in the barn of Tim Yakteen, a former assistant to Baffert.
Doppelganger and Mclaren Vale are also now in the barn of Yakteen, while Blackadder has been moved to Rodolphe Brisset. All horses are owned by The Avengers Stable.
Derby stepping stone races continue March 26 and Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Epicenter will be heavily favoured 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-sixteenth 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 looking handsome ahead of Saturday’s Louisiana Derby pic.twitter.com/PI2UbHkmZ6
— Fair Grounds (@fairgroundsnola) March 23, 2022
Epicenter has thrived at Fair Grounds this winter, winning the Gun Runner Stakes on December 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) presented by Lamarque Ford 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 favourite 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 for 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, hoping to have a fresher horse for the rigours 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 Cup 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 N 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 2nd) 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.”
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.