Racing Roundtable: Lecomte Day and Pegasus World Cup
James Scully, Kellie Reilly, and Vance Hanson look back at last weekend's Lecomte Day card at Fair Grounds and look ahead to this week's Pegasus World Cup (G1) program at Gulfstream in this week's Racing Roundtable.
Did the Lecomte (G3) change your view of Instant Coffee?
James Scully: No, I thought Instant Coffee showed class at two — he managed to win the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) despite an ugly performance — and was a candidate to move forward significantly this year. There was no certainty surrounding it, but Instant Coffee's improved Lecomte performance came as no surprise to those taking a glass half-full approach. I thought he was an immature goof at times last fall, his own worst enemy during the opening five-eighths of a mile in the Kentucky Jockey Club, and didn't have his head on straight in three starts. Instant Coffee proved more professional Saturday, and more importantly, ran faster, generating a respectable 96 Brisnet Speed rating for the 2 1/2-length win.
Kellie Reilly: Instant Coffee validated his prior win in the Kentucky Jockey Club. His performance at Churchill Downs was theoretically better than it looked on paper; it could be "upgraded," considering his wide trip and the slow race shape that didn't set up for him. In the Lecomte, Instant Coffee proved that he is indeed capable of a stronger effort in more favorable circumstances, i.e. a robust pace. Aside from his improved Brisnet Speed rating (jumping from an 84 last out to a 96), he beat re-opposing rival Denington by a much larger margin at Fair Grounds. On the other hand, Instant Coffee did what he was supposed to do as the heavy favorite, in a race where the others were decelerating markedly. As the trail progresses, the closer will have to run down more formidable opposition. The Lecomte thus reinforces my view rather than materially changing it.
Vance Hanson: Instant Coffee received a much more favorable pace scenario in the Lecomte than he had in the Kentucky Jockey Club, which was an unusually slow-paced race, so his success at Fair Grounds was no surprise. The progression he showed from a speed rating perspective was welcome and evidence we're looking at a potentially serious Derby contender. The one critique, which isn't Instant Coffee's fault, is that in neither the KJC or Lecomte did he face a rival up to his level, but that's a standard knock against winners of these lopsided preps. The hope is he'll be more battle-tested in the one or two preps he has remaining.
What other performances are worth noting from Fair Grounds?
JS: Kudos to Happy American for a second consecutive stakes win, and initial graded triumph, in the Louisiana (G3). The five-year-old gelding appears to be coming on for Neil Pessin. And I'll mention the wire-to-wire allowance win by Determinedly, who proved game withstanding the late bid of even-money favorite Tapit's Conquest. A gray three-year-old by Cairo Prince, Determinedly kept good company last season. The Mark Casse-trained colt finished second to Arabian Knight in a Keeneland maiden before graduating by more than seven lengths over Shopper's Revenge, a Tapit colt who came back recently to smartly win an Oaklawn maiden by open lengths for Steve Asmussen. Determinedly was exiting a third in the Dec. 26 Gun Runner S. to Jace's Road, who will contest this Saturday's Southwest (G3) at Oaklawn.
KR: Judging by how Tapit's Conquest flew late to miss narrowly in an allowance, it's worth wondering where he might have finished in the Lecomte. He was cross-entered to the stakes, but Cox ended up choosing the earlier race for the Tapit colt who is still a work in progress mentally. That gives him a vibe very reminiscent of Cox's Cyberknife at this time last year. Tapit's Conquest actually posted a faster Brisnet Late Pace rating in the allowance (95) than stablemate Instant Coffee did in the Lecomte (87). His 93 Speed rating reflects the much slower pace in the allowance; the winner Determinedly got away with six furlongs in 1:13.01, compared to the 1:12.02 split in the Lecomte, yet the final times were pretty close (1:45.26 in the allowance versus 1:45.12 in the Lecomte). A couple of maiden winners on the undercard also warrant mention. Regally-bred First Defender is bred to go much farther than six furlongs, so it was encouraging to see the Steve Asmussen pupil force a hot pace and draw off to notch a 92 Speed rating. Cagliostro's 83 figure doesn't leap off the page, but the way he overcame a bad start to blow away the field makes him one to watch for Cherie DeVaux.
VH: I was reluctant to give an early nod to Gentle Soul in the Colonel E.R. Bradley S. in last week's TwinSpires Jury, given his status as an also-eligible, but I was not entirely surprised with his rebound performance following a distant fourth-place effort in the Buddy Diliberto Memorial. Although a sharp, off-the-pace winner of two allowances over the Fair Grounds turf during the 2021-22 meet, Gentle Soul was out of his element when setting the pace in the Dec. 26 Diliberto and unsurprisingly faded after setting a pedestrian pace. I thought that if he reverted to his closing tactics in the Bradley, which seem to have been the preferred style over the course this winter, he'd be competitive against a field that was largely well exposed. I liked his Bradley performance, and he'll demand respect in a race like the Muniz Memorial (G2) later in the meet.
Early thoughts on Pegasus World Cup Day?
JS: Strong card with full fields. Bettors have options in the 12-horse, $3 million Pegasus World Cup, and I'm bullish on Proxy, who broke through with his first stakes triumph in November's Clark (G1) at Churchill Downs. It took a while, but the five-year-old signaled he is ready to be a major player at the highest level last time. And Proxy will confirm it in the Pegasus World Cup.
KR: The Pegasus World Cup has a world of early speed, suggesting that it could offer Cyberknife a set-up like his Haskell (G1). Or will it be a case of the speed-of-the-speed clearing, and Defunded doesn't stop? Before the Clark, I thought that Proxy was too dour, but he showed an entirely new degree of tactical finesse. In other words, the Pegasus looks like a more competitive contest than it's often been in recent years, with a more evenly-matched field. The Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1) has a totally wide-open feel, notwithstanding Ivar's excellent formlines through Godolphin's star Modern Games. I'll put in a hopeful word on Decorated Invader, who projects a better trip than he had to endure last time. In the Pegasus World Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G3), it would be fitting if the form of last year's heroine, Regal Glory, stands up here through Shantisara and Wakanaka. On the undercard, I'm delighted to see Miles D — one of my "radar" horses for 2023 — resurface at last for Chad Brown. The son of Curlin is presumably using the one-turn mile of the Fred W. Hooper (G3) as a launching pad to bigger targets, but the pace scenario could set up for him.
VH: With the exception of Mucho Gusto, who paid a whopping $8.80 in 2020, the Pegasus World Cup has been the domain of short-priced winners since it replaced the old Donn H. in 2017. If Cyberknife runs to his best in his career finale Saturday, the trend will continue, but I find trainer Saffie Joseph's pair of White Abarrio and O'Connor somewhat intriguing flyers at 10-1. White Abarrio is winless everywhere but Gulfstream, where he is 4-for-4, including a score over the track and distance in last year's Florida Derby (G1). He got in a good prep last time, finishing a close third in the Cigar Mile (G1). The Chilean import drew a poor post (12) for this and will have to step up off a modest fourth in the Harlan's Holiday (G3) as the favorite, but the consistent six-year-old should relish the slight step up in trip and might get a pace similar to the one he received when taking his U.S. debut last fall. Joseph's other entry, Skippylongstocking, is an obvious contender off his Harlan's Holiday win, and his early 5-1 price is likeable, too.