Handicappers Debate: 2023 Louisiana at Fair Grounds

January 20th, 2023

Three-year-olds are in the spotlight Saturday at Fair Grounds, as the Lecomte (G3) and Silverbulletday will award qualifying points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby and Oaks series, and the 14-race program features a nice undercard, including the $150,000 Louisiana (G3) for older horses.

Handicappers Ashley Anderson and James Scully have different opinions in the 1 1/16-mile Louisiana, which has attracted nine runners.

James Scully: I’m tabbing #8 Zozos in his return to stakes competition. A first-out maiden winner at Fair Grounds 12 months ago, Zozos recorded a 10-length allowance win at Oaklawn before making his stakes debut in the Louisiana Derby (G2), finishing a clear second to Epicenter. He trained forwardly at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, but weakened to 10th after chasing a hot pace and needed time off after the 1 1/4-mile classic.

Zozos impressed when returning from a seven-month layoff last month at Fair Grounds, rallying from off the pace to a 2 3/4-length decision, and the four-year-old colt owns the tactical speed to make his own trip from an outside post Saturday. The lightly raced colt will move forward off his last.

Who do you like Ashley?

Ashley Anderson: I’m going with one of Bret Calhoun’s three runners, siding with #2 Run Classic, who broke his maiden at today’s distance when racing at Fair Grounds back in February of 2021. The Runhappy five-year-old was on the 2021 Derby trail until injury halted his three-year-old season.

He looked sharp in 2022, finishing with victories in a pair of sprints, then came home a head second at today’s distance in an allowance optional claimer at Churchill before stretching out to 1 1/8 miles in the Tinsel S. Run Classic weakened in the stretch when running nine furlongs, but I think he will improve with the cutback in distance and the return to Fair Grounds, where he’s 3-1-1-0 lifetime.

Zozos is certainly an intriguing runner for Brad Cox, but is there any concern over his lack of experience compared to the field with just five races under his belt?

Scully: I’m more concerned about his Brisnet Speed ratings, but expect those numbers to rise into triple-digit territory. Zozos gained the seasoning last year necessary to be a factor at this level. And while I believe his best races are in front of him, he’s got to prove it. The distance fits him perfectly, and my expectations for 2023 will change significantly with a setback.

I’m surprised by your tab of Run Classic, any concern about him being better at one-turn?

Granted, Run Classic overpowered a maiden special weight field at the distance during his two-year-old season, but I thought his one-turn races last fall were much better than his two-turn attempts.

Anderson: I had a feeling you would mention that.

I agree that he’s looked better at one turn, and Calhoun admitted his perfect distance is probably seven-eighths or a one-turn mile, but he believes that he can produce his best run going two turns, and I like Run Classic’s chances from an inside post, where he can potentially get out in front early. He got nailed at the wire two back at today’s distance when breaking from post 3 and dueled for the lead through an arduous pace early on. Last out, Calhoun said he never felt comfortable on Oaklawn’s track, but Run Classic did produce a 98 Late Pace rating. If he can break well out the gate, I think he’s got a chance to prove himself at two turns.

I also like that the doubt surrounding his ability at two turns may push his odds a bit higher by post time, offering more value for me than backing the probable favorite.

I will say, another early/presser type I considered was Forza Di Oro, who will make his second start for Cox and has a graded stakes win to his name. Do you think he can upset his stablemate here, or is Zozos the clear choice out of Cox’s barn?

Scully: Can’t fault your thoughts about value, or trip on a potentially soft pace. There’s some concern Zozos will be overbet as the morning line favorite, but I won’t waver on my conviction. His stablemate, Forza Di Oro, is a little intriguing given the projected pace scenario — he was on the front end last time — but his best races came at Aqueduct in 2020, and he’s been exposed in the last four stakes attempts. I’ll remain skeptical until proven wrong.

Thanks for your contributions, Ashley. We’ll keep tabs on whose selection performs best in Saturday’s Louisiana at Fair Grounds.