The early outlook for the Kentucky Derby is cloudy, very cloudy.
I’m not talking about the weather, which expected to be “fair, quite cool, with a dry track” in the Louisville area on the first Saturday in May, according to Sandi Duncan, managing editor at the Farmer’s Almanac.
I’m speaking of the lack of any solid favorite as we set off down the Road to the Triple Crown.
Usually the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner automatically assumes the mantle of early Derby favorite. But 45-1 long shot Storm the Court’s head victory on a deep Santa Anita track that many horses struggled over left many wondering if he’s the real deal. The 8-5 favorite, Iroqouis Stakes winner Dennis’ Moment, stumbled at the break and never got involved. Meanwhile, Eight Rings, the Bob Baffert-trained winner of the American Pharoah Stakes and second choice at 5-2, pressed the pace before fading.
Maxfield, who would have been among the favorites, was scratched before the race with what was described as an issue with his right front leg and subsequently underwent surgery to remove a chip from an ankle. The colt is back at the track and could still make the Derby field if all goes well over the next few months.
Champagne Stakes winner Tiz the Law led the individual entry betting in the first Kentucky Derby futures pool in December, closing at 12-1 and trailing only the ever popular “all other 3-year-olds” at even money. But his star lost some luster with a third-place finish next out in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes.
Other horses have staked a claim as favorite, including Kentucky Jockey Club winner Silver Prospector, Jerome Stakes conqueror Independence Hall and Authenticate, another 3-year-old from the bottomless Baffert barn, who triumphed in the Sham Stakes on Jan. 4.
The haze may begin to clear Saturday with the $200,000 LeComte Stakes at the Fair Grounds. On the other hand, the Derby picture could get even more inscrutable.
Scabbard, the 7-2 morning line favorite, may provide a useful measuring stick, as the runner-up in both the Saratoga Special and Iroquois Stakes finished a well-beaten fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. If he runs well in the 1 1/16th-mile LeComte, the results of the Juvenile will look even more fluky.
#RJhorseracing featured races
Despite the blackout, the LeComte was irresistible to the #RJhorseracing handicappers, who will also attempt to decipher the $150,000 Toboggan Stakes (Grade 3), a 7-furlong test for older horses at Aqueduct.
In the latter, the handicapping crew is backing 2-1 morning line favorite Mind Control, who’s returning off a nearly five-month vacation. They have Sunny Ridge (9-2) and T Loves a Fight (5-1) tied for second.
Mind Control is a tough read here. He has a class edge over his competition but has been beaten twice returning from shorter layoffs while still running well.
I’ll go instead with Nicodemus (5-1), who’s shortening up in his second race back from a layoff, a maneuver that trainer Linda Rice used last year with success. I’ll go with Mind Control for second and T Loves a Fight to show.
In the LeComte, which drew a full field of 14, the crowd ‘cappers were deadlocked at deadline between 7-2 morning line favorite Scabbard and Silver State (5-1), who tries stakes company for the first time off two sharp races for trainer Steve Asmussen. They have Mr. Monomoy (9-2), a half-brother to 2018 champion filly Monomoy Girl, checking in third.
Scabbard has been facing the best in the division, but he’s also returning from a 2½-month layoff and may not be fully cranked up. I’ll try to beat him with Enforceable (15-1), who made up ground late on the Kentucky Jockey Club on a sloppy track and should get a solid pace to run at. I’ve got Scabbard to place and Mr. Monomoy to show.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Nevada bettors would not be able to wager on the LeComte Stakes.
Ellis Starr’s LeComte Stakes analysis
Silver State makes his third career start and his two races to date have been exemplary. He won his debut at the end of September by nearly 10 lengths, then two months later improved a ton when missing by a nose in a mile race. That second effort earned Silver State a 99 Equibase Speed Figure, which is tops in the field. He’s also likely to improve off the effort in his third career start. Additionally, that figure was far better than the 92 figure earned by Silver Prospector later on the same day over the same track in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. It’s likely there will be a very hot early pace in this year’s LeComte with Bango, Shashashakemeup and Sycamore Run all having early speed and stretching out from outside posts, which will force their jockeys to go fast early to gain good position before the turn. Silver State should be in a similar position in the early stages as in his most recent start when fifth after three quarters of a mile, with some tiring targets in front of him. Of the three horse in this year’s LeComte trained by Steve Asmussen (the other two being Halo Again and Excession), Silver State is the one who gets the trainer’s #1 rider in Ricardo Santana. With an excellent workout over the track on Dec. 31 that was the second best of 35 on the day, followed by one that was the second best of 50, Silver State appears to be holding top physical condition and is my top pick to win this year’s LeComte Stakes.
Finnick the Fierce was disregarded by bettors in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at the end of November, going to post at odds of 87 to 1. In spite of that he nearly posted the upset as he rallied from seventh of eight in the early stages to miss by just three quarters of a length at the end. Having improved to a 91 figure in his first route, from 85 in his previous start, Finnick the Fierce gets the benefit of the ground saving rail for the LeComte from which to launch his late bid. With room to continue to improve in his second route and third start off a layoff, and also likely to benefit from a faster than average early pace, Finnick the Fierce should be respected as a contender to win this race as well.
Lynn’s Map has a win at Fair Grounds, and around two turns, which may give him an experience edge over some of the other horses in this year’s LeComte. Lynn’s Map was racing around two turns for the first time in that race last month when he showed a good deal of maturity rallying from third at the top of the stretch to win by a head over Mr. Monomoy, who was also making his third career start and first in a route. Both horses earned 87 figures for the effort, less than their previous races, but both have room to improve off the experience and neither would be a surprise if winning the LeComte Stakes.
The rest of the field, with their best representative Equibase Speed Figure: Bango (93), Enforceable (97), Excession (87), Halo Again (92), Jack the Umpire (75), New Eagle (88), Perfect Star (92), Scabbard (96), Shashashakemeup (95) and Sycamore Run (98).
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.