Catching My Eye: Opening Weekend at Fair Grounds

November 25th, 2023

It has been said many times, and I can attest, Fair Grounds is like two meets in one. The track has the best winter turf racing this side of the Appalachian Mountains all the way to the California stateline and top-class horses race here every day, many coming down from Kentucky’s phenomenal program. Alongside all that on every card are races written for Louisiana-breds. The program is robust and quite enjoyable for fans as you can follow horses who stay in training year-in and year-out.  If you want to cash at Fair Grounds, you have got to be in tune with both.

As racing wraps up at Churchill Downs, many non-Kentucky connections will try to snag the purses and several of Fair Grounds’ stakes days are Louisiana-bred delights. Opening weekend featured two such days. Here are some thoughts on three big performances.

Newcomers on the La-bred Stakes scene: Buy, Sell, Hold

Of the four stakes run on Friday and Saturday for older Louisiana-breds, three were won by relative newcomers to this class level. The millionaire Free Like a Girl got the job done as the favorite in the $75,000 Doris Hebert Memorial, but that’s it in terms of old faces/short prices. So, can we trust the form of these stakes winners going forward?

Vale Male won the $75,000 John Valene Memorial on Friday. A four-year-old filly trained by James “Sweet” Hodges - gotta love the local nicknames - she got the set-up of a lifetime. With the only potential speed horse in the race having trouble out of the gate, James Graham had his wits about him to guide Vale Male from the advantageous outside post to the front of the pack. From there it was over, few are as amazing at slowing things up out front as Jimmy Graham.

Vale Male earned a 91 Brisnet Speed figure, her highest to date. She is in good hands, but I don’t see her running back to this figure unless she were to get the same set-up. Sell.

As the 9-2 third betting choice, Mangum was by no means a longshot in the $75,000 Jacob V. Morreale Memorial, but wow, has he come on the scene quickly, and he beat two highly regarded, highly bet foes. Early in his three-year-old campaign, Mangum popped forward to win a couple, running decent figures, but he regressed readily after each and finished over 20 lengths behind his stakes-dreaming sophomore peers in the spring. Since Fair Grounds’ meet concluded, Mangum has flourished.

Owned by Set-Hut, trained by Jeff Delhomme, and with Corey Lanerie in the saddle for Saturday’s one-mile and 70-yard event, Mangum fought back possibly the best La-bred closer in Who Took the Money. He had an excellent trip and I believe he fired his best shot against a field that looked flat.

Though the Morreale had top company, it did not produce top performances as many regressed in terms of speed figures. This makes me hesitant about Mangum. Delhomme did say after the race that they are very interested in sprinting Mangum, possibly on Louisiana Champions Day (Dec. 9). I don’t think he can keep on beating older routers but I do think he will be dangerous next out on the cutback. I’ll rate Mangum a hold for now.

In the $75,000 Larry D. Robideaux Memorial, the win went to Autumns Strong Man at 32-1. Owner/trainer Gary Husak said that since they gelded him, last year mind you, he has steadily moved forward. The pace set up nicely for his stalking speed, and if the finish line was one yard farther he would’ve been drilled by the late kick of Langs Day. Husak also said his four-year-old was likely to show up in the Louisiana Champions Day Sprint.

Last season, I asked Brian Hernandez Jr. about Autumns Strong Man. "BJ" doesn’t ride the card at Fair Grounds, meaning he picks his spots wisely on live horses, so when he showed up on Husak’s entry, I was curious because I didn’t see the form in the PPs that would justify him climbing aboard. He told me he thought this horse was coming into his own, and he was excited to see what he’d do, and could definitely win. After a few underwhelming runs, he did win, beating allowance company last spring. Over the summer, Autumn Strong Man’s speed figures have gone in the right direction, topping out at a 93 Brisnet Speed figure. Great trips like he had in the Robideaux aren’t always there for the taking, but coming off an 89 on Saturday and likely still offering value next out, I’m a buyer, expecting this newcomer on the stakes scene to score another one, if not on Dec 9, then definitely before the meet is over. Buy.