Catching My Eye: Derby Hopefuls on Fair Grounds Road to the Derby Day

January 25th, 2023

With Road to the Derby Day and other strong fields, there was a lot of action at the Fair Grounds this past week. Let’s dive into two races: the Lecomte (G3) and the three-year-old allowance race that featured a handful of Derby dreamers.

While no runners blew me away, a few stand firmly on my Kentucky Derby (G1) contender list. And several fall off it completely.

The Lecomte

With 20 Kentucky Derby points on the line, the Lecomte went to Instant Coffee. Brad Cox has got so many Derby hopefuls, we need to get straight on who is a contender and who is a pretender.

Going from last to first with a sweeping move in the second turn, this son of Bolt d’Oro had a favorable set-up in the Lecomte with Echo Again blitzing to the lead and Bromley pressuring him every early step. The pace also set up nicely for the second-place finisher Two Phil’s, who made the first move to the front out of the turn.

Pace-wise, Instant Coffee and Two Phil's had the favorable set-up, which is definitely a knock, though they’ll likely run into a similar pace again and again on their road to the Derby. Endurance-wise, they both proved to me they will have no trouble getting the 1 1/4 miles classic distance of the Derby.

When Instant Coffee ranged up on Two Phil’s, for a moment it seemed he might not pass him. Looking at the entire card, outside horses struggled to pass their inside foes again and again. Jockey Jareth Loveberry confirmed after the race that Two Phil’s dug in trying to fight off his challenger, but Instant Coffee had more than enough energy left to fight by and pull away.

In terms of gallop-out, Two Phil’s cruised past Instant Coffee around the bend, which in no way do I see as a knock on the Lecomte champ — there’s no doubt in my mind that he keeps coming.

For me, Two Phil’s gallop-out keeps him in the Derby picture. The first start in his form cycle, he paired up his last-out 93 Brisnet Speed figure.

Instant Coffee earned a 96 Brisnet Speed figure. Cox intends to keep him at Fair Grounds, possibly running him in the 1 1/8 mile-Risen Star (G2) on Feb. 18, but maybe skipping that to enter the 1 3/16 mile-Louisiana Derby (G2) on March 25 as his last prep before the first Saturday in May.

Through much of the race, Confidence Game ran like he was trying to pull James Graham’s arms off. He wants to be on the lead and will be dangerous when he gets there again. I’m still interested in this runner.

As for Echo Again — just like his full sibling, Costa Terra — he cannot get the distance. Bromley, too, is a sprinter. Denington had a perfect trip, riding a good rail the entire race and yet finished a distant fourth. I don’t think we’ll see him again on the Derby trail, but if so, fade.

Race 9, the 3-year-old allowance

Found cast in his stall on Friday night, Banishing was scratched from the race, which the Brendan Walsh barn thought would be a confidence booster. When it was drawn, many said it was saltier than the Lecomte. All reports I’ve heard say that Banishing is doing well, only suffering a few scrapes.

There was definitely a runner in this race who would have been better set up to win if he ran into the pace of Echo Again, and that’s another Cox horse, Tapit’s Conquest.

Seeing the times throughout the day, and the time-based speed figures coming out of the races, the track seemed to slow down and speed up in strange ways. I am interested to know what someone like Craig Milkowski saw on the day, if the times were right, and what the pace-based speed figures look like.

Take for example Race 9. Determinedly walked the dog on the lead, running a 25.31 opening fraction. He held on for the win and scored a 93 Brisnet Speed figure — better than his Gun Runner S., where he fell to his knees out of the gate, but a point slower than his maiden win at seven furlongs.

He’s unlikely to get such a soft pace set-up in a Derby prep race and eight starts in, he seems to have hit his ceiling. Determinedly was a Derby pretender to me before this race and now he is a Derby pretender that I’ll likely get to see in the Risen Star. Good news, because I’ll be loading up on another horse when they bet him.

Tapit’s Conquest and Silver Heist would have beat Determinedly if the race was 1 1/8 miles. But Silver Heist ran on the rail tracking the soft pace — a perfect trip. I’m interested underneath if he runs in the Risen Star or Louisiana Derby. He's lightly-raced and in Asmussen’s barn.

Tapit’s Conquest was given an uneven ride and left with too much to do closing into the slow pace of Race 9. After breaking nicely, Florent Geroux rated him in the back on the rail, soon losing contact with the field as they picked up the pace in the second quarter, falling over two lengths behind the nearest horse. He began to move into the field but struggled for a lane to run.

Instead of swinging out wide or tipping off the rail, Geroux tried to go inside past Determinedly, but Tapit’s Conquest was hesitant until finally surging as Determinedly tired. If he had tried to pass outside, he very well could have gathered his run and fully extended to win. His gallop-out impressed me big time, and I feel confident he’ll get the distance.

All the reports I hear around the track say Tapit’s Conquest is doing excellent in the morning, and Cox says he still has more to learn. A definite contender.