(Trainer Brad Cox / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

From the Fair Grounds Media Team:

The calendar has turned. The distances have increased. An extra turn has been added. The acid test beckons. Eleven 3-year-olds—including the undefeated Mandaloun—will assemble for Saturday’s $200,000 Lecomte (G3) at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots in the hopes of proving their mettle not only locally, but on the national scene as well, as thoughts turn to the first Saturday in May and the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve. The sorting out process begins in the 1 1/16-mile Lecomte, which will offer 17 qualifying points for the Derby (10-4-2-1), and should prove a key stepping-stone to the local March 20 TwinSpires Louisiana Derby (G2) as well.

The Lecomte will be run as the final event on a 13-race “Road to Derby Kickoff Day” card. Five other stakes, including the Silverbulletday for 3-year-old filles, will be contested on a program jam-packed with quality. First post will be at noon CT, one hour earlier than usual.

Juddmonte Farms’ homebred Mandaloun has done little wrong in two successful starts for trainer Brad Cox, as he won on debut going 6 furlongs at Keeneland in October and in an optional-claimer going 7 furlongs November 28 at Churchill Downs. Sent off as the even-money favorite in both races, the son of Into Mischief has displayed versatility, closing from eighth early on debut at Keeneland, then stalking the pace and pouncing from fourth before drawing off at Churchill. Cox has long been looking forward to stretching Mandaloun our around two turns, where he thinks he’ll shine even more brightly.

“He’s trained very well at Fair Grounds since we got here,” Cox said. “We’ve always felt he was cut out to be a two-turn horse based on his physical make-up and how he trains. It shows how much talent he’s got to be able to win his first two races at sprint distances and now we’re going to do what we’ve thought he’s wanted to do all along, and that’s go long.”

West Point Thoroughbreds and William Sandbrook’s Arabian Prince (post 2 at 6-1 with Brian Hernandez Jr.) ended his freshman season with a strong third carded a race after Mandaloun’s allowance win in Churchill’s Kentucky Jockey Club (G2). The son of Mshawish won on debut there in September for trainer Dallas Stewart and was fourth in their Street Sense before earning some black type in his third career start. Stewart and West Point teamed up with Commanding Curve, who ran third in the Louisiana Derby (G2) here in 2014, and they are looking to embark down that path with Arabian Prince.

“He’s a beautiful horse and this is the next step, so we’ll see how he fits,” Stewart said. “He’s improved every time out, it’s the progression of it, and we’re hoping for another progression Saturday. We’d like to save some ground and use the long stretch to our advantage. He’ll come running late.”

Godolphin’s homebred Proxy (post 4 at 6-1 with Mitchell Murrill) starts with a homecourt edge, as he’s already won twice at the meet for trainer Mike Stidham. A beautifully bred son of Tapit is out of two-time grade 1 winner Panty Raid, Proxy has shown plenty of raw talent in winning 2-of-3, but he faces by far the toughest test of his career in the Lecomte. In both wins, Proxy set a slow pace while being pressured on the lead before drawing off late, though Stidham very much admits he’s still a work in progress.

“He’s like a big, immature kid who is still learning with racing,” Stidham said. “Last time when he won, he was a little green about switching leads coming down the lane, but once he leveled off, he drew away at the end, so we were pleased with that. We were deciding whether to run him back in this race or wait for a race like the Risen Star. We felt like he’s a big, healthy, strong colt and we thought the experience of running would do him more good than working three of four more times waiting for the Risen Star.”

Stidham could also run Newtown Anner Stud’s Manor House, who is cross-entered in an optional-claimer (race 8), but would bring plenty of intrigue if he runs in the Lecomte. The son of Upstart wired the field by 12 ¼ lengths on debut December 12 at Laurel Park going a one-turn mile and he would be a major pace player, and quite possibly more, should he tackle stakes company on Saturday. Still, Stidham knows the best is yet to come, regardless where Manor House shows up next.

“This is just the beginning for him,” Stidham said. “He did everything right breaking his maiden, but he needs to take the next step and run well against winners for us to be confident moving forward with him.”

Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Midnight Bourbon (post 1 at 7-2 with Ricardo Santana, Jr.) was twice stakes-placed at 2 for trainer Steve Asmussen and he should like getting back to two turns. The son of Tiznow aired in his second start going two turns at Ellis Park in August then was ran in a pair of one-turn miles stakes, when second in Churchill’s Iroquois (G3) in September and third in Belmont Park’s Champagne (G1) on October 10. Midnight Bourbon drew the rail and he has an enviable blend of tactical speed and stamina that should serve him well in his local bow.

Completing the Lecomte field from the rail out: Marylou Whitney Stables’ homebred Beep Beep (post 3 at 12-1 with Joe Talamo), a debut winner November 29 at Churchill for trainer Norm Casse who is also entered in R8; Coffeepot Stables’ homebred Regular Guy (post 5 at 10-1 with Miguel Mena), a December 19 track and distance MSW winner for trainer Wayne Catalano; Tom Durant’s homebred Game Day Play (post 6 at 20-1 with Gabriel Saez), who won the October 30 Clever Trevor at Remington Park for trainer Brett Calhoun; Calumet Farm’s homebred Santa Cruiser (post 7 at 6-1 with James Graham), who broke his maiden on November 15 at Churchill for trainer Keith Desormeaux; owner/trainer Terry Eoff’s Red N Wild (post 8 at 20-1 with Declan Carroll), a distant third in the December 18 Springboard Mile at Remington; and Brad Allshouse’s Dyn O Mite (post 11 at 30-1 with Colby Hernandez), who won an off-the-turf optional-claimer here on December 4 for Desormeaux.

Additional Lecomte quotes:

 Cox, Mandaloun: “He’s got a good based underneath of him off the two starts and now, hopefully, it will work out and he’ll show us what we think we’ve seen from him. You never know until you try it. We hope he makes a good account of himself on Saturday. I don’t think the outside post matters. I think sometimes it’s overrated. I think good horses can overcome post positions, and I think he’s a good horse.”

Stidham, Proxy: “He’s taken the right steps right direction for us to be confident in entering him here (the Lecomte). I’m a big believer in the Ragozin numbers. They kind of guide me with the placement of horses. He moved forward four points from an 18 to a 14 on Ragozin in his last two races, so he did make a big jump forward.”

Stidham, Manor House: “We’re not sure which direction we are leaning just yet,” Stidham said. “I’ll discuss it with the owner in the next couple of days. He trained really well at Fair Hill, working with several different 2-year-olds that we liked quite a bit. He was either right there with them or outworking them. We thought a lot of him going into the debut. You never really know what you’re getting in with at places like Laurel. We really didn’t know what we were running against, but he won by over 12 lengths. He showed a tremendous amount of talent that day and he’s done nothing but train exactly the same since the win, so, he’s definitely moving forward. We are anxious to see him run against winners and see what he can do.”

Stidham, Proxy and Manor House: “When it comes to both horses, we are just hoping to make steady progress. We don’t want them to peak too soon. It’s a long 3-year-old year. We are looking for them to do big things and take us to the places where every trainer and owner wants to go.”