Fair Grounds’ Road to the Derby begins with an exceptionally intriguing renewal of the $200,000 Lecomte (G3) on Saturday. Aside from the Kentucky Derby (G1) points on offer, on a 10-4-2-1 scale to the top four finishers, the mile-and-70-yard contest promises to sort contenders from pretenders, with wider implications for the Triple Crown trail.

FREE Lecomte past performances courtesy of Brisnet

Seven things stood out as I analyzed the full field:

1. Southern California shipper Instilled Regard brings top form from his home circuit. Just edged by the Bob Baffert pair of Solomini and McKinzie in a bumpy stretch run in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1), the Jerry Hollendorfer trainee held his own against two prominent Derby contenders. Instilled Regard was elevated to second that day upon the demotion of Solomini, whose class had already been proven by his runner-up effort in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). Highly regarded McKinzie, the promoted winner of the Los Al Futurity, has since come back to flaunt his superiority in the Sham (G3). Instilled Regard thereby sets a high bar for his Lecomte rivals to match, and he also gets an eye-catching jockey booking in Javier Castellano. By Arch and a grandson of champion Heavenly Prize, the $1.05 million OBS March purchase has the pedigree to progress further too.

2. Kowboy Karma brings strong form from New York and has two reasons to improve. Trained by his co-owner/breeder Larry Jones, this strapping gelding looked like something out of the ordinary in his first two starts at Delaware Park last summer. But he didn’t have the chance to put his best foot forward in the Sapling at Monmouth, where he was left with too much to do and ran out of ground as a closing second. Kowboy Karma had another less than favorable passage in the Champagne (G1) at Belmont, so his fourth-place effort was commendable. The Champagne has been boosted in the interim, as near-misser Good Magic returned to romp in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and third-placer Enticed won the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2). Kowboy Karma then reverted to sprinting in the James F. Lewis III at Laurel, only to settle for second as the 2-5 favorite. I’ve long thought he was due for a rider change, and now he gets one with Brian Hernandez Jr. in the saddle. Yet it turns out that he also had a breathing issue, since addressed by minor throat surgery (as reported by Daily Racing Form’s Marcus Hersh). With those two changes likely to help, we might well see the real Kowboy Karma in the Lecomte.

3. Principe Guilherme, the 5-2 morning-line favorite, faces his first real test. This $600,000 son of leading sire Tapit and Grade 1-winning sprinter Aubby K has run off the screen in both of his outings so far for Steve Asmussen. Principe Guilherme set a pressured pace and drew away in a seven-furlong maiden at Churchill Downs, propelling himself into Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager (KDFW). Those who backed him at 27-1 in Pool 1 had to be pleased when he later routed an entry-level allowance over the Lecomte track and trip by 11 lengths, again on the front end. The one quibble is that Principe Guilherme has beaten up on lesser opposition, and he had things all his own way last time. On Saturday, he’ll encounter his stiffest competition, and a task possibly complicated by being drawn toward the outside in the big field. If Principe Guilherme can defeat this group, he’ll move up on the Derby depth chart.

4. Jones and Asmussen are both triple-handed in the Lecomte. Jones has more going for him than Kowboy Karma, with the blueblood Believe in Royalty and Prince Lucky. Believe in Royalty is well-named, since he’s the product of equine royalty: his parents are Tapit and past Jones star Believe You Can, who turned the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2)/Kentucky Oaks (G1) double in 2012. Twice a winner around Laurel’s one-turn mile, Believe in Royalty was most recently sixth in the Springboard Mile. Prince Lucky isn’t as fashionably bred, but he has won three of four sprinting, including the Pennsylvania Nursery for state-breds in his latest. Now he’ll meet open stakes company, and try a route, for the first time. In addition to Principe Guilherme, Asmussen calls upon Zing Zang – yet another Tapit! – and Snapper Sinclair. Zing Zang scored over this course and distance in his third attempt, and as a deep closer, he’ll be hostage to the pace set-up. Snapper Sinclair is best known as a turf sprinter, thanks to his big maiden win at Saratoga and his victory in the Fasig-Tipton Turf Showcase Juvenile at Kentucky Downs. The City Zip colt stretched out to two turns in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1), winding up 12th, and now switches to dirt for the first time since his unplaced debut at Belmont.

5. Lone Sailor adds first-time blinkers after a trio of useful stakes efforts. Hailing from the same connections as 2016 Lecomte hero Mo Tom – owner Gayle Benson’s GMB Racing and trainer Tom Amoss – Lone Sailor trounced an off-the-turf maiden in the Saratoga slop by 11 lengths. He hasn’t quite put it together in stakes company, finishing third in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1), missing by a head in the Street Sense at Churchill, and moving too late when fifth in the Kentucky Jockey Club. That suggests he could prosper in blinkers for a trainer who wins 21 percent of the time with his runners in this category (according to Brisnet.com). Lone Sailor had done enough to be included in KDFW Pool 1, closing as the longest shot on the board at 100-1. Interestingly, Lone Sailor descends from the same all-star female line as Kowboy Karma. They trace to Broodmare of the Year Courtly Dee, Kowboy Karma via champion Althea and Lone Sailor by way of Althea’s full sister, Aishah.

6. Zeke goes turf-to-dirt for Mike Stidham, who wins at a 20 percent clip on that surface switch. Unbeaten from two starts, the son of Gio Ponti has employed contrasting styles on dirt and turf. Zeke wired an off-the-turf maiden at Laurel, while rallying from off the pace in a Fair Grounds turf allowance. The common denominator has been cutting it very close in photo-finishes. Zeke must move forward to threaten in this tougher spot, but he keeps jockey Joe Bravo, who boasts a 40 percent strike rate with Stidham runners over the past 60 days.

7. The talented filly Wonder Gadot would have added another degree of intrigue to the Lecomte. Trainer Mark Casse expects to scratch, however, in favor of the Silverbulletday in her own division elsewhere on the card. She’d only try the boys if there were some material defections, a scenario that appears unlikely at this stage. As the smashing winner of the Demoiselle (G2) and Mazarine (G3), Wonder Gadot ranks second in BRIS Prime Power, behind only Instilled Regard, in the Lecomte. Maybe the daughter of Medaglia d’Oro, sire of such star fillies as Rachel Alexandra and Songbird, will get an opportunity to tackle males down the road.

For more stats, including Prime Power, check out the free Brisnet PPs for the Lecomte.

Principe Guilherme photo courtesy of Hodges Photography