Catching My Eye: Unpacking the Louisiana Derby

March 28th, 2024

Fair Grounds has signed off on its 152nd season, but with a series of prep races that have been as productive as any on the first weekend of May, it’s way too soon to turn the page. Here’s a bookmark for the 111th Louisiana Derby, which, when the dust settles, I believe will rank as one of the best and most productive in recent memory.

The $1 million Louisiana Derby (G2)

The Winner

Some said he was common. Some said he was still too green. Some said he didn’t move like the best of the best, but man, this is the one who got the job done, even though the pace set up against him. Whatever has been said about Catching Freedom, they sure bet him at the windows. The 3-1 second choice of 11, under Flavien Prat Catching Freedom went from last to first to win the Louisiana Derby for Brad Cox, sealing the deal on the Oaks-Derby prep sweep for the barn, which they also accomplished in 2020 with Bonny South and Wells Bayou.

How impressive was it? You simply can’t get past the fact that the pace was moderate, yet the closers came with huge runs. Was the track playing to closers? Were the forward horses Derby pretenders? 10-1 Common Defense pressed 2-1 favorite Track Phantom. Neither horse regressed, and in fact, from Catching Freedom to Awesome Ruta (9th), nine of the 11 three-year-olds in the Louisiana Derby moved forward to run their fastest race to date. 

The son of Constitution can take dirt in his face. He can overcome tight spots and traffic trouble, never getting discouraged. He can rally late. He can sustain his run at 1 1/4 miles. Out of the Pioneerof the Nile mare Catch My Drift, the half-sibling to Bishop’s Bay has steadily progressed, showing all signs that he is maturing physically and mentally. Catching Freedom’s barn and his morning riders have never given the impression that he is the one with the best shot to win the Kentucky Derby (G1). Though always described as an unimpressive workhorse, Catching Freedom was on an a.m. upswing ahead of the Louisiana Derby. 

In five races, he has had four different jockeys: Florent Geroux, Christian Torres, Luis Saez, and Flavien Prat. So who will take the call in Kentucky Derby 150? I wouldn't put too much stock in it, to be honest. Maybe he underwhelms the humans but he sure overwhelms his running company. This colt is ready for any passenger who legs up.

Three Pivotal Battles in One Louisiana War

We can unpack the Louisiana Derby by looking at three battles between pairs of horses: Track Phantom and Common Defense; Tuscan Gold and Antiquarian; Catching Freedom and Honor Marie

Forward: Track Phantom and Common Defense

The Lecomte (G3) and Gun Runner winner, Track Phantom led the field, and Common Defense pressed him on the outside every step of the way. When Common Defense bid for the lead, Track Phantom fended him off, and in the end, they held that order finishing fourth and fifth respectively. 

Neither went too fast early and neither had enough late kick to run with the top three finishers. However, there’s a point where Tuscan Gold comes down into Common Defense’s lane, ostensibly blocking any possible late heroics, but it's hard to endorse this as a legitimate excuse because Common Defense had every opportunity to get by Track Phantom but simply could not. Track Phantom ran a 97 Brisnet Speed figure - three points higher than his Gun Runner best - and Common Defense earned a 95. 

Tracking: Tuscan Gold and Antiquarian

Heading into the first turn, a line of four went evenly chasing Track Phantom and Common Defense’s tails. From the rail out, Hall of Fame, Awesome Ruta, Antiquarian, Tuscan Gold. Into the backstretch, Antiquarian yielded, lost position, and began to pursue. He also broke through the gates pre-race. Two excuses to take note of. 

Coming out of the far turn, Antiquarian made his move outside those three trackers and together with Tuscan Gold, who is massive, bid outside the forward two. Exchanging a couple of bumps, Tuscan Gold put Antiquarian away after a furlong duel. Antiquarian seemed done but came back on in the gallop out and could be a Belmont type. Gaffalione said Tuscan Gold still has a few things to work out and laughed politely when I asked him if he’d ride him over Sierra Leone in the Derby. 

Rear: Catching Freedom and Honor Marie

Soon out of the gates, Catching Freedom was beaten to his spot, and instead of fighting through, Prat settled him and positioned along the rail. With Agate Road just ahead of him and Honor Marie in the two-path, the trio brought up the rear of the field. Connections looked at the fractions and wondered how they could get the job done from the back when the forward horses should have plenty left. 

Catching Freedom moved first at the top of the far turn and Honor Marie went with him. The two circled the field and in tandem began to kick down the center of the track behind and outside Tuscan Gold and Antiquarian. Offering a more productive kick, Catching Freedom won that battle, which decided the war for 100 qualifying points. 

You could argue that the mellow man Honor Marie shied away from that outside foe. That could certainly be a reason to fade him in the 20-horse Derby. Ben Curtis came back saying simply how relaxed Honor Marie is and he can be put anywhere, do anything. That is absolutely a reason to love his chances to don roses. 

Gallop Out

Catching Freedom won, and held front rank for another half-furlong, but soon was passed meaningfully in the gallop out by Tuscan Gold, Agate Road, Common Defense, and Antiquarian. Prat had said 'Whoa' while the jocks of those four had not. No knocks on the winner there from me, but it’s good information to have if one was wondering about those other four getting the Triple Crown distances.

Going Forward

The pace heats up just about every year in the Derby, and it looks like we will have several game closers coming out of the Fair Grounds prep races: Catching Freedom, Honor Marie, and Sierra Leone. Logically, they should be underlays in that market, but narratives take hold and I’ll suspend any final judgment until the market takes shape. I suggest you do the same, no matter how hard people try to pin you down for your “Derby pick.” 

Can Track Phantom rate? It would likely be the best tactic but we have not seen that from him as a three-year-old. Could Tuscan Gold and Common Defense be dangerous getting first run as they turn for home under the Twin Spires? Absolutely, but they are on the bubble, and their connections are left wondering if they will get their shot at the roses. 

Cliff Notes

In the end, I have distance questions about Track Phantom. Also, one of the hardest things for a forward horse to do is to fend off a game closer. That doesn’t change on the first Saturday in May.

I see the upside of Tuscan Gold and Antiquarian, and am definitely impressed. Honor Marie, as well, should move forward in his third start as a three-year-old but there is a potential knock that he doesn’t have that fire in him needed to win a race where he could be joined and have to go eyeball-to-eyeball with foes. However, he is handy and should be able to work out a clean trip. 

Though the majority of narratives out there about Catching Freedom have been knocks against, this is the one who gets the job done. This is the one you hope to hear analysts like me speak poorly of going into the race. If they do and the price says yes, this is the one to fire on in the Kentucky Derby.