It’s is the first major Saturday of the New Year at the Fair Grounds, and the LeComte Stakes has attracted a standout field, along with five other major Stakes races to highlight the card. It is getting that time of year when the big guys come out to play, and I can’t wait to see this year’s Road to the Kentucky Derby kick up a little dirt.

Here is a closer look at today’s card:

1st: (13)-5-7-12-11-4-9-3…Keep an eye out for two things on this race. One, if it comes off the turf, I have decided not to play the race. Too many of these need the grass for it to be truly handicapped if moved to the dirt. Second, keep an eye out on Lil Commissioner (13), to see if this son of Field Commission draws in from the AE list. If he does. he deserves a solid look with the top tier of these. If not, I go with Time Flies By (5), a 3YO gelded son of Jimmy Creed. This one has run close in both of his previous tries here this meet, one on the grass and the other washed off. Caught a good one the last time out, who has already come back to win again. This guy looks poised for a good run today. More Than a Saint (7) is a NY-bred facing open company, but is trained by one of the hottest guys on the planet in Brad Cox. He has put up a record of 8-5-2 over the last 14 days and gets Javier Castellano to ride. Can’t dismiss. My top play in here, betting wise, is Alternative Route (12), an Ontario-bred son of Tiznow who is owned by Spendthrift Farm. This guy caught a monster on debut and ran his eyeballs out before tiring late. Now switches over to the grass, where the dam has two winners from three starters and 1 turn winner, already. Trainer is off to a solid meet. I bet the 5-12 to win/place/show and then box the top 3 numbers in one exacta and then key those 3 over the rest in a smaller version.

2nd: 12-7-8-9-1-3-(13-15)…Another one where you need to watch and see if this event stays on the grass or if a horse draws in from the AE list. If the mare Tizahandful (13) gets in on the grass, this one could be a hand full at a nice price, and I would definitely use. If it is moved off the grass, then Legallini (15), who is entered for MTO, surely figures in the mix. If neither happens, I go with Magic Joan (12) on top for the combo of Brad Cox and JJ Castellano. This one has not been seen in the afternoons since November, who had a really nice race then on the grass at Aqueduct. Before that, she won at Belmont going a 1/16-longer on the grass. This one is a deep closer and will need some racing luck to prevail, but this trainer/jock combo have combined to win 2 of 3 over the last 60 days. Galileo Gal (7) was last seen racing at Woodbine, where she had a run-away win and a tough-beat second in her last two outs when getting the addition of Lasix. She is a stalker that doesn’t have a problem pressing the lead, and she gets John Velazquez today. Trainer has 6 wins, 2 seconds in the last two weeks and this one trained very well here of late. My longshot play in here is Nutcracker Suite (8), who will make her first start in NA today. This one used to be trained over in Europe by Aidan O’Brien and she won her last start on the artificial surface in Ireland. Gets Lasix and a return to the grass today and the trainer is off to a very nice start here. Look at the work at FG on Dec. 23. This one has some talent and is 15-1 ML odds. I bet the 12-7 to win/place/show and then box the top 3 in one exacta. I key the top 3 over the rest in a smaller version.

3rd: 1-3-2-7-6-9-8…Wow. What a great MSW event right here. Top pedigrees and horses working lights out all over the place. I’m taking an upset right here with New Colossus (1), a son of Curlin who cost $600,000 as a yearling at the Keeneland September Sales of 2016. Bought then by Fox Hill Farms, he was soon turned over to the capable training hands of Larry Jones — who will saddle 3 in the LeComte Stakes later on. And, this guy has been training lights out, of late. A pen pal of The Pressbox’s first told me to keep an eye out for this one. And, in my interview with Larry this week, we chatted about this guy. He caught a terrific field and draws the inside post — which is often not good for a first timer. But this guy looks to be the real deal and could make an impact on the 3YO scene this year. My pick. Fascilitator (3) has run two super seconds in a row against very good company and should be the prohibitive favorite. I have touted him on both occasions and I expect him to be the horse to beat. Bemma’s Boy (2) is another one from the Asmussen barn, who will be making his first career start. Outworked his roommate Facilitator in the slop here on Jan. 8. Must have some kick to him. Can’t go without writing a tad about Tapability (9) — the first foal from the great Groupie Doll. This son of the great Tapit is also trained by Buff Bradley, who conditioned her mom to stardom. He has been working very well, as well, and it would be great for Team Bradley and the sport to have another one like that family. I bet the 1 to win/place/show and then box the 1-3-2 in one exacta. I key the 1-3-2 over the rest in a smaller version.

4th: 7-5-1-11-3-2-(13-14)…Another turf race that I have to watch carefully to see if the #s13 & 14 draw into the field from the AE list. If they do, they immediately go to the head of the class in this field. If not, I go to It Is time (7) a 3YO More Than Ready colt who nearly won at this distance two back when on the grass. Bested at the wire by a solid horse in that one, but came back to spit the bit badly in the slop here on Dec. 17. Has worked well since then and Jersey Joe Bravo gets back in the saddle for a trainer that he has hit with on .40% this meet. Should love the return to the grass. Messiah (5), who nipped the preferred choice in the grass race here on Nov. 23 and has been idle since then, picks up the services of John Velazquez today. This one nearly pulled off the upset win that day, at odds of $40-to-1. Will need to bring that game again today to have a chance. Soul Beam (1) has run two solid thirds in a row on a yielding grass course and a sloppy dirt one. Could pick it up with a firm turf. Good Offense (11) looked to be running well with a chance to win at Churchill on Nov. 2, when she ducked and shied late in that one, dumping the rider near the wire. Gets a new pilot today and loses the shades. Both could help. I bet the 7 to win/place/show and then box the top 3 numbers in one exacta and then key them over the rest in another smaller version.

5th: 4-2-1…Duncan F. Kenner Stakes…This 6-furlong dirt sprint looks like it should be dominated by Yockey’s Warrior, a 6YO horse who won 3 of 4 in 2017 and 3 of 5 in 2016. Will be making his first start of the New Year today, but he has won five of his last 6 races and has been training very well for a solid trainer. The work here on Dec. 22 was super sharp and it appears ready for the return. Zulu (2) was cut out to be a super horse, or so it seemed. When trained by Todd Pletcher, this son of Bernardini won his first two starts and ran second in the 2016 Fountain of Youth to the undefeated Mohaymen at the time. But he folded up in the Blue Grass Stakes that year, beaten badly by Brody’s Cause, and has really never been the same sense. He is now trained by Wayne Catalano, and it appears that he is training very well for this effort. I think he may be back to some-what normal? Chublicious (1) comes into this one off a second place finish to the top choice, but he was beaten 5 lengths in that one. Has hit the board in 17 of 24 lifetime starts. Figures to do so again today. I bet the 4 to win only and then key the 4 over the other two numbers.

6th: 8-9-7-10-5-4-1…Marie G. Krantz Memorial Stakes…Mom’s On Strike (8) has gotten really good for trainer Joe Sharp, who is having a terrific meet at the Fair Grounds so far. He has plastered up a record of 19-11-13 in 75 mounts to date for a win percentage of .25%, and has teamed up with this jockey at a .33% clip overall in their last 48 mounts together. In 2017, this 5YO mare had 2 wins and 3 seconds in just 6 starts, and she hasn’t been worse than 2nd in the last four outs. But she has really been a different horse since losing the blinkers two back. Since then, she has closed from well off the pace to win each. Super good work here on Dec. 16 shows me she is ready to roll. Giada Vegas (9) won a Stakes event here on Dec. 16, rallying from off the pace to pull away late. That was the first time this daughter of Scat Daddy had been ridden by Corey Lanerie. They are teamed up again today and the works indicate that she is ready to go again. She has won four in a row after being nipped by a 1/2 length for a win on Sept. 16. Joyous Thunder (7) ran a good one to the second choice in the last and will be closing late. Daughter of Kitten’s Joy had a record of 3-3-3 in 9 starts last year. Figures. I bet the 8-9 across the board and then box the top 3 picks in one exacta and key the top 3 over all the rest in another smaller version.

7th: 7-2-1-5-6-9…Silverbulletday Stakes…One of the first premier races on the Road to the Kentucky Oaks starts right here. Farrell, who disappointed in the Kentucky Oaks, won this race a year ago on her ay to sweeping the big three preps at the Fair Grounds — including the Fair Grounds Oaks. Today, much of the attention and the betting will be turned to Wonder Gadot (2) — who was cross entered in the LeComte, against the colts. Instead of challenging the boys, though, she will face other fillies in this spot. This daughter of Medaglia d’Oro was highly touted going into the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, but she was caught trapped deep inside that day and was checked hard at the 1/8th pole, losing all chances. She came back to finish the year in style, though, winning the G2 Demoiselle Stakes at Aqueduct by a widening 33/4 lengths on Dec. 2. Justification. But I have going to use her stable-mate on top, Heavenly Love (7), who like her roommate is trained by Mark Casse. Heavenly Love was tremendous in winning on the grass at Kentucky Downs in September and then dominating a nice field in the G1 Alcibiades Stakes at Keeneland in October. She was bet down to under 4-1 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but really never fired at any time. She has come back to work great here, though, and looks primed for a top performance. My choice. Blonde Bomber (1) ran third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, closing from way back in the pack to lose by less than 4 lengths. Prior to that she had run-away wins in back-to-back races at Gulfstream Park. Ships in from Florida for this effort, and the trainer is 0-for-13 when he travels? I bet the 7 to win/place/show and then box the top 3 in one exacta and key the top 3 over the rest in a smaller version.

8th: 3-4-5-1-8-6…The Colonel E.R. Bradley Stakes…This grass Stakes event brings together some of the better, older, tougher, experienced turf runners in the country today. This one should be led by Galton (3), a 7YO gelding who seemingly has never been better. He nearly won the G3 Tropical Turf Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Dec. 16, losing by less than a length that day when rallying up the rail. Gets the services of Javier Castellano for the first time today, and had a super work over at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 6. The definite horse to beat. Monster Be a (4) was long odds in his last try, in the Artie Schiller Stakes at Aqueduct on Nov. 18, but he nearly upset the apple cart and the tote board, losing only by a length after he made the lead in the stretch. Will stretch out today, but gets HOF rider John Velazquez in the saddle and that should assist this one. Still, he had only 2 seconds in 6 starts last year. Tower of Texas (5) ran just a neck behind the preferred choice in the last try. This 7YO gelding did have 2 wins and 2 thirds in 7 outs last year — most coming in Canada. Trainer has not run a horse here this meet, and has been training in Florida. Dimension (1) who won here on Dec. 16 is my upset play in this spot. This 10YO was closing with a real purpose in that one, but he was nearly 40-1 odds that day. Can he duplicate that kind of effort? I bet the 3 to win/place/show and then key the 3 over/under all the numbers listed.

9th: 10-12-5-6-1-9-13…G3 LeComte Stakes … Instilled Regard (10) is, without question, the horse to beat in what may be one of the most intriguing, interesting, perplexing and exciting preps for the Kentucky Derby to ever kick of the “The Road” in recent memory. This race is full of capable, talented, and well-bred colts who have the right to improve today and excite their owners and connections. But Instilled Regard, a son of Arch, may have won the G1 Los Alamitos Futurity on Dec. 9 in his last race if not for a three-way bumping incident that lasted for much of the final 1/16th-mile of the race. And, being between horses, he caught the worst of it from both sides. At the end, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Stakes runner-up Solomini was disqualified and the beneficiary was his stablemate McKenzie, who was moved up to the win. McKenzie just came back to win the Sham Stakes last weekend at Santa Anita. Now, Instilled Regard shows up here. If he can run the same type of race he showed in the last, he will be a tough out today. But it won’t be easy. Principe Guilherme (12) is a super talented son of Tapit, who has won his first two races by a combined total of 171/4 lengths. For all purposes, he looks to be the next super horse in the barn of Steve Asmussen. Then we come to the team of Kowboy Karma, Believe in Royalty and Prince Lucky for trainer Larry Jones. He could win with any of the three of these guys. All have super credentials. But I have long touted the emerging talent of Believe in Royalty, whose mother — Believe You Can — won the Kentucky Oaks. I bet the 10-5-6 to win/place/show — since I think the 12 will be over-bet. I then box the 10-6-12 in one exacta, the 10-5-12 in a second exacta box, and then key those 3 over all the rest of the numbers used.

10th: 5-4-10-6-3-7…Louisiana Stakes Purse…This is my Best Bet of the Day. And, it goes to The Player (5). In my view, all those people who have been searching like crazy for a colt to fill an opening in the Pegasus World Cup field should have been calling trainer Buff Bradley inquiring about how they may be able to entice him to run this guy in that championship event. I don’t know if he could handle Gun Runner, but, then again, who can? The rest of the field? I think The Player — on his day — is as good as any of them. He had that kind of day on Oct. 28, when he won the G2 Fayette at Keeneland in the slop. Before that he nearly beat Awesome Slew in the G3 Ack Ack Stakes at Churchill Downs and then nearly set the track record at Ellis Park. As a 3YO, he ran a game second to Cupid in the Indiana Derby. He has the credentials to be at the top of the sport, and by the looks of his works at the Fair Grounds, he is primed and sitting on go. I think the rest of this group are looking to see who can run second. Of all the great horses that Buff Bradley has trained through the years, this guy may be the best and most talented job. Period. I bet the 5 to win/place/show; key the 5 over/under all the other numbers in the exactas; key the 5 over the rest of the numbers in the trifecta; and I key the 5 in the Pick 3, Pick 4 and Doubles.

11th: 12-4-3-9-10-(13)…Keep an eye out to see if the 13, Triple Dog Dare, draws in from the AE list. If he does, he figures with this group. If not, I go to San Elijo (12), who was bet down to favoritism in his only start to date. Ran very well on the lead in that distance MSW, but tired at the end and lost to Zing Zang, who shows up earlier in the card in the LeComte. If that one runs well against Stakes company, then it should be a good sign for this one. Great work here on Jan. 6 and looks primed to take the next step. Conquistador (4) ran third to Combatant at Churchill Downs back in October. That guy ran a nice second to Greyotis in the Springboard Mile in his next start. This son of Tiznow could really improve off two rough crowds, and had a super work here on Dec. 29. Looks to be the one to beat. Achiever (3) is a first timer for the Asmussen barn. He has been working lights out, too, and cost $360,000 at the 2016 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. I can’t dismiss. I bet the 12-4 to win/place/show and then box the top 3 choices in one exacta and then key those 3 over the rest in another.

Good Luck & All the Best/Gene