Horses to Watch: Ky. Derby, Oaks hopefuls battle at Fair Grounds

Horses to Watch: Ky. Derby, Oaks hopefuls battle at Fair Grounds
Photo: Hodges Photography / Fair Grounds Race Course

In this biweekly series, racing analyst Keeler Johnson shares promising horses from his handicapping watch list, reviewing runners who have recently caught his eye and previewing horses scheduled to run back in the near future.

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Epicenter

It is possible the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard will have a new name at the top following Saturday’s 14th race at Fair Grounds, the Grade 3, $200,000 Lecomte Stakes (post time 7:20 p.m. EST). Current leader Pappacap is a logical Lecomte favorite after finishing second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but Epicenter can give him a run for top honors.

Epicenter has already made some serious noise on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. The Steve Asmussen trainee delivered a strong showing in the Dec. 26 Gun Runner over the same track and 1 1/16-mile distance as the Lecomte, pressing a steady pace before kicking on to trounce stakes winner Tejano Twist by 6 1/2 lengths.

Epicenter is unbeaten and unchallenged in two starts since stretching out over one mile, so he clearly relishes running long. His Brisnet Speed Ratings are not quite as quick as those posted by Pappacap, but Epicenter is eligible to keep improving with maturity. Even a small step forward can land Epicenter in the Lecomte winner’s circle and simultaneously place him atop the Kentucky Derby leaderboard.

La Crete

There’s a reason why La Crete is the 2-1 morning line favorite to win Saturday’s 11th race at Fair Grounds, the $150,000 Silverbulletday Stakes (post time 5:52 p.m.). Simply put, the Stonestreet Stables homebred is one of the most exciting 3-year-old fillies in training.

A daughter of Medaglia d’Oro (renowned as the sire of champion fillies Rachel Alexandra and Songbird), La Crete was produced by Cavorting, a daughter of Preakness Stakes winner Bernardini. Cavorting was a versatile racehorse who won three Grade 1 prizes over distances from seven furlongs to 1 1/8 miles, and she is already carving out a strong reputation as a broodmare. Her first foal, Clairiere, won the Cotillion Stakes (G1) last season.

La Crete likewise appears destined for success at a high level. The bay filly was tons the best in her debut racing 1 1/16 miles at Churchill Downs, leading all the way to easily win a maiden special weight by 2 1/4 lengths. Hot jockey Joel Rosario retains the mount for Hall of Fame trainer Asmussen, so expectations will be high when La Crete heads to the starting gate in this Road to the Kentucky Oaks prep at Fair Grounds.

Trafalgar

Although it is easy to view the Lecomte as a two-horse battle between Pappacap and Epicenter, it is also possible Trafalgar can outrun expectations and snatch a spot in the exacta. Or maybe even deliver a victory.

Trafalgar has yet to miss the exacta in three starts. After finishing second in his sprint debut at Saratoga, Trafalgar showed improvement (and eye-catching versatility) when stretching out in distance. A one-mile maiden special weight at Churchill proved to be no obstacle, as Trafalgar rallied from far behind a hot pace to dominate by 2 1/4 lengths. Then he switched to pace-pressing tactics for a 1 1/16-mile allowance optional claimer at Fair Grounds, where he dug deep to win by a head.

With only three starts under his belt, Trafalgar still has room for improvement. He has trained nicely for Al Stall Jr. since his allowance win and is adaptable enough to work out an ideal trip regardless of the pace scenario. There is a lot to like about Trafalgar’s chances, at least for securing a minor award.

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