(Mandaloun at Churchill Downs last year / Photo by Holly M. Smith)
From the Fair Grounds Media Team:
Mention Juddmonte Farms’ homebred Mandaloun to trainer Brad Cox and the reaction is telling. And immediate. Cox is looking forward to showing the rest of the racing world what he’s thought all along—that Mandaloun is one serious 3-year-old—when he starts as a strong favorite in a sterling renewal of Saturday’s 108th running of the $1 million TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots.
Run at 1 3/16 miles, the Louisiana Derby will offer 170 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, on a 100-40-20-10 scale, and highlight a robust 14-race card that includes eight stakes overall, including the supporting feature, the $400,000 TwinSpires.com Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) for 3-year-old fillies.
Mandaloun (post 6, as Mike Diliberto’s 8-5 morning line favorite, with Florent Geroux to ride), a son of Into Mischief, burst on the national scene as a 2-year-old, easily winning both starts sprinting in Kentucky at short odds. Things didn’t go as swimmingly in his 3-year-old debut, however, as he was third at odds-on in the local Lecomte (G3) in January, finishing behind winter rivals Midnight Bourbon and Proxy. Mandaloun was also making his two-turn and stakes debut in the Lecomte, and after taking a step back to look at the big picture, Cox wasn’t as disappointed as maybe the betting public and Mandaloun’s fan club was.
“You have to keep in mind it was his first start around two turns and first start in a stakes and he was a little bit wide the entire way,” Cox said. “I think he got a lot out of the race and moved forward off it. From a physical standpoint he looks like he’s continued to develop.”
Cox also decided to make what would be a key equipment change after the Lecomte, as he put blinkers on for the local February 13 Risen Star (G2). Mandaloun trained brilliantly in the mornings with blinkers and backed Cox’s high praise in the afternoon, when a much more polished colt turned the tables on both Proxy and Midnight Bourbon with an authoritative 1 ¼-length win, while earning the 50 Kentucky Derby qualifying points that went with it. To Cox, the win and marked improvement was due to a combination of things.
“More than anything, it was just the experience of having the race going two turns under his belt,” Cox said afterwards. “I think the blinkers did help out. Florent immediately made a comment after the race. Much more focused in the post parade, more focused on his job. We didn’t put a bunch of cup on him, just like a one-inch cup, but it seems to have done the trick to get him mentally over the top, mentally getting him where he needs to be.”
With the Risen Star behind him, and a berth in the Run of the Roses already assured, Mandaloun heads to the Louisiana Derby in a bit of an interesting position. Cox, who won the race last year with Wells Bayou, doesn’t want to squeeze the lemon dry Saturday, even though there are a million reasons to do so. Mandaloun has continued to flourish in his training, highlighted by a March 6 bullet 59 1/5 drill going 5 furlongs over the track, which gives his trainer that much more confidence that he can pull off an elusive double that hasn’t accomplished since Grindstone did it in 1996.
“His last two works have been phenomenal; we’ve done as much with him in the morning than we can do,” Cox said. “The goal is to get the job done on Saturday. He’s going to have six weeks to recover, if he runs the way we hope he should, to point to the Kentucky Derby. There will be a period there where he can recover then hopefully, we can start cranking him up towards the end of April for the first Saturday in May.”
Godolphin’s homebred Proxy (post 4 at 7-2 with John Velazquez) was a game second in the Risen Star and will try to emulate Mandaloun’s path to victory, as he’ll add blinkers for the meet’s signature race. The son of Tapit has been a meet-long work in progress for trainer Mike Stidham, who has continually said the best is yet to come for a colt still on the improve. Proxy, who is 2-for-5 lifetime, broke his maiden and won an optional-claimer earlier in the meet before running second in the Lecomte, but after losing focus and dropping back entering the far turn of the Risen Star, only to re-break and salvage second, Stidham felt the time was right for a change.
“There were just a number of reasons why the blinkers were added,” Stidham said. “If you look at all of his races here at the Fair Grounds, in every race you can kind of see him doing a little erratic stuff, whether it be shying away, drifting out, or losing focus like he did in the Risen Star. You can’t win Kentucky Derbies or Louisiana Derbies by doing that.”
Proxy has since worked three times with blinkers, which includes a February 26 bullet 47-flat local 4-furlong move. Stidham is confident the equipment change will have an impact, as will the elongated distance of the Louisiana Derby
“I felt like the works with blinkers, in company, he was definitely a little handier for the rider and more focused,” Stidham said. “We’re finally getting these horses at our game; without a doubt the 1 3/16 miles is a big help. I’m welcoming the added distance and I’m hoping things go well here and then we get even more distance in Kentucky.”
Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Midnight Bourbon (post 7 at 5-1 with Joe Talamo) will look to rebound after running third in the Risen Star, though he was beaten just 1 ¾ lengths in what was only slight regression after his strong Lecomte win for trainer Steve Asmussen. The son of Tiznow wired the Lecomte but settled in second in the Risen Star before tiring slightly late while showing plenty of versatility and backing up his biggest career win. Midnight Bourbon is 2-for-6 lifetime and gives Asmussen reason for excitement as he jumps back in to try Mandaloun and Proxy once again.
“I’ve always thought those three were very serious 3-year-olds, not just at the Fair Grounds but they are as good a prospect as you want to be around and I don’t think they’ve done nothing to change anybody’s opinion of that,” Asmussen said. “The addition of blinkers on the one (Mandaloun) and Proxy has been consistent, with the pedigrees they have, all three of them (including Midnight Bourbon) are capable, but at this point of your 3-year-old year, you either get better or you get beat. You’ve got to improve. What you’ve done (so far) is not going to be enough.”
Tom Durant’s Run Classic (post 3 at 12-1 with Brian Hernandez Jr.) won a two-turn MSW on the Risen Star undercard and will look to emulate history for trainer Bret Calhoun, who pulled the same double in 2019, when By My Standards broke his maiden on Risen Star Day and went on to win the Louisiana Derby. Calhoun knows it’s a big ask, but he also knows he’s got a son of Run Happy who is loaded with potential.
“We’ve been high on him for a long time; he’s shown talent, he’s performed up to expectations so far,” Calhoun said. “I know it’s a big step forward, but we wouldn’t be attempting this if we didn’t think he was a pretty smart, good-minded horse”
Roadrunner Racing, Boat Racing, and William Strauss’ Hot Rod Charlie (post 5 at 3-1 with Joel Rosario) adds plenty of California class to the equation, as he was second to 2-year-old champion Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland in November for trainer Doug O’Neill. The son of Oxbow returned at 3 to be third behind the talented Medina Spirit in the January 30 Robert B. Lewis (G3) at Santa Anita and invades for a barn that won Risen Star in 2007 and Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) in 2016 and 2017. Hot Rod Charlie is just 1-for-6 lifetime but owns an MSW win, to go with the Juvenile and Lewis runs, in what are his only three starts at two turns on the dirt. O’Neill’s assistant Leandro Moro will be the trainer of record on Saturday.
Barrett Bernard, Tagg Team Racing, and West Point Thoroughbreds’ O Besos (post 8 at 15-1 with Marcelino Pedroza) was fourth in the Risen Star, in what was his two-turn debut. The son of Orb won twice sprinting at the meet for trainer Greg Foley before stretching out in an encouraging effort that he could build on.
Wayne T. Davis’ Rightandjust (post 2 at 20-1 with Colby Hernandez), was sixth after setting the pace in the Risen Star for trainer Shane Wilson, and owner-trainer Dallas Stewart and WinStar Farm’s Starrininmydreams (post 1 at 20-1 with Luis Saez) was ninth, in what was his seasonal debut.
Additional Louisiana Derby quotes:
Stidham, Proxy: His last work, we weren’t looking for anything special. He worked by himself and he was comfortable going easy fractions. He’s run four times at the meet and I know I have a fit horse, so I wasn’t looking for anything fast, just a nice even, steady work. I don’t worry about the blinkers making him overly aggressive, since he’s not that type of horse. Even with the blinkers, you have to make him do what he does. He’s not a horse that is going to drag you out of the saddle.
We would love to win this race; it’s an important race for the horse and for my own personal reasons. But the only thing I’m truly looking for is this horse to take another step forward on numbers. If that meant running a huge race and running second, I would accept that because obviously the ultimate goal is having a horse that is going to be competitive in the Kentucky Derby.
Calhoun, Run Classic: He’s pretty much done everything right so far and it seems like he’s moved forward since the last race. I can tell he’s a little more serious about his works. He was just doing things on raw talent and ability early on and I don’t how much he knew what he was doing. Now he seems more focused on the task which translates to him being even that much more impressive in the mornings.
It looks like a pretty honest pace. It looks like there are several of them in there that show pretty good route speed. My horse has the ability to get pretty good position early on. If they’re going too fast, I think Brian (jockey Hernandez, Jr.) will be sitting off of it. The added distance is definitely a concern, but I think it’s a concern for all of them. I understand pedigree-wise it raises some questions (for us) but physically he looks like this is what he’s meant to do. In his last race, Brian made this horse finish up and gallop out quite a bit and I don’t think we got to the bottom of the tank. In his recent works, he’s come home pretty quick. He’s got a high cruising speed and he accelerates pretty strongly late and gallops out pretty strong. He hasn’t shown us any distance limitations in the mornings. Obviously, a mile-and-three-sixteenths is going to be a big test for him as well as some of the others.”