Racing Roundtable: Louisiana Derby, Jeff Ruby, and Fair Grounds Oaks takeaways

March 26th, 2024

The Racing Roundtable assesses the Louisiana Derby (G2), Jeff Ruby Steaks (G2), and Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) from the past weekend.

What were your takeaways from the Louisiana Derby?

James Scully: Catching Freedom stepped up with a big performance, easily netting a career-best 100 Brisnet Speed rating rallying last to first, and he’s progressed significantly in three starts this year for Brad Cox. Southwest (G3) winner Mystik Dan (101) is the only horse under Kentucky Derby consideration to run faster in a qualifier. I also liked Honor Marie’s improvement, closing well for runner-up honors in his second outing of the season, and both colts will bring a formidable late kick to the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby (G1).

Track Phantom will add speed if he proceeds to the Kentucky Derby. The 2-1 favorite weakened to fourth after controlling the pace, so it’s difficult to have confidence in his chances at 10 furlongs, but he’s one of the few speed horses with class in a Kentucky Derby landscape dominated by stalkers and confirmed closers.

Vance Hanson: The top three look like legitimate Kentucky Derby prospects now (Tuscan Gold perhaps slightly less so, given his relative inexperience and his position behind Sierra Leone in the pecking order of Chad Brown trainees). These were solid efforts by Catching Freedom and Honor Marie as there wasn't a whole lot of pace to close into, but they both did and over a track that was seemingly playing fair.

Beaten favorite Track Phantom, who weakened to fourth, is pushing onward to the Derby, but he simply doesn't look likely to stay based on his efforts here and in the Risen Star.

Ashley Anderson: A few of the runners from the Louisiana Derby look like viable win contenders in the Kentucky Derby. Catching Freedom, who rallied for a last-to-first finish in the 1 3/16-mile Louisiana Derby, should have no issue with the extra 110 yards in the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby (G1), and he's certainly bred to enjoy longer distances as a Constitution colt out of a Pioneerof the Nile mare. The Brad Cox trainee also has experience at Churchill Downs, where he broke his maiden on debut when racing a mile.

The second-place finisher in the Louisiana Derby, Honor Marie, could also show up big the first Saturday in May. The son of Honor Code has a pair of victories at Churchill Downs, including a win in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) at 1 1/16 miles, and he's got the closing kick to excel at 1 1/4 miles.

Lastly, Tuscan Gold put in an impressive performance in his stakes debut and third career start. The Chad Brown runner would likely need to get some more points to guarantee a spot in the Derby field and may point toward the Preakness (G1) instead, but he's one to watch in either case.

How impressed were you by Tarifa's win in the Fair Grounds Oaks?

JS: Tarifa confirmed herself as a leading contender for the Kentucky Oaks (G1) and I like the versatility the once-beaten filly has displayed in two stakes attempts – she can make her own trip. After utilizing stalking tactics in her Rachel Alexandra (G2), Tarifa prompted Our Pretty Woman along the backstretch and finally wore down the pacecetter in midstretch, edging away to a near one-length decision in the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2). She can handle any kind of conditions, and it’s easy to envision Tarifa having more to offer in the Kentucky Oaks.

VH: I wouldn't be surprised if Tarifa wound up a mild Kentucky Oaks favorite after sweeping her races in New Orleans this winter. She had to overcome a bit more adversity in the Fair Grounds Oaks than she had in the Rachel Alexandra, mostly caused by her reluctance to settle early on. It shows what a potentially good horse she is that it didn't phase her enough to win against a stubborn Our Pretty Woman. It might, however, prove a problem against a larger field in the Kentucky Oaks, but we'll see.

The disappointment in the Fair Grounds Oaks was obviously Intricate. I don't know whether she has the quality to contend in the Kentucky Oaks now, but if she goes, the faithful will have a much better price on offer.

AA: Tarifa has triumphed in three straight starts since shipping to Fair Grounds, and she's now 2-for-2 against stakes company, but I do have slight concern over her Brisnet Speed figures. She clocked an 89 Speed rating in her latest effort and posted a 90 two back when taking the Rachel Alexandra (G2), but she'll need a higher number to win the Kentucky Oaks. She also faced small fields in both the Rachel Alexandra and Fair Grounds Oaks, so she'll need to prove she can relax when facing a greater number of rivals. Tarifa's lone loss has come at Churchill Downs as well, in her second career start, but I do think she's stepped forward significantly since then and is now a win contender in the Kentucky Oaks. She'll have her work cut out for her on May 3, though, and will need her best effort to date if the likes of Candied or Just F Y I are entered in the Oaks field.

With Endlessly bypassing the Kentucky Derby, is there anyone from the Jeff Ruby Steaks you like as a Derby contender?

JS: After producing a Kentucky Derby winner (Rich Strike) and runner-up (Two Phil’s) the last two years, the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) appears unlikely to make a serious impact this year. West Saratoga showed grit getting up by a head for second, picking up the necessary points for a Kentucky Derby bid, and the Larry Demeritte-trained colt has shown an affinity for Churchill Downs, but West Saratoga has failed to match the 89 Brisnet Speed rating he earned for the Iroquois in three starts this year.

VH: This renewal was not on par with that won by Two Phil's last year. The latter earned a 107 Brisnet Speed rating and arguably ran the best race when finishing second in the Kentucky Derby after racing close to a crushing pace. This year's winner Endlessly is a nice horse, and his connections are doing right by him to point elsewhere, given his fondness for grass and synthetic tracks. His immediate pursuers, West Saratoga and Seize the Grey, are exposed types who figure to be major Derby longshots if they go.

AA: Endlessly cruised to a four-length win in the Jeff Ruby, with the second- through fifth-place finishers all separated by a nose or a head. With Endlessly's connections forgoing the Derby, I don't see a true win contender from the remaining field, but a few look like they could potentially hit the board on May 4 at Churchill. West Saratoga won the Iroquois (G3) at Churchill last September but has failed to reach the winner's circle in his next four starts. He'd also be making his 11th career start should he race in the Derby, and history is not on the side of runners with that many starts in the Run for the Roses.

Seize the Grey is another runner who could hit the board in the Derby and recently closed at 33-1 in Pool 5 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager (KDFW). The colt is by Arrogate out of a Smart Strike mare and finished fourth in the Iroquois, but his Speed figures are somewhat lacking.

Lucky Jeremy could be in the mix as an early speed type, but I do doubt his ability to handle the mile-and-a-quarter distance.