The focus at the Fair Grounds Weekend Stakes was firmly on the Grade 2 Risen Star, in which the front-running Epicenter laid down a marker for the Kentucky Derby with an authoritative success. Here is our Fair Grounds Weekend Stakes Recap.
Kentucky Oaks possible Turnerloose made her own bid for Churchill Downs when a brave winner of the Grade 2 Rachel Alexandra, while Olympiad put his name in the record books when setting a new track best in the Grade 3 Mineshaft.
Risen Star Stakes
Epicenter sends out Derby tremors
The Risen Star, the feature event at the Fair Grounds on Saturday, was expected to provide a shake-up in the Kentucky Derby picture and didn’t disappoint, with a dominant front-running performance from Epicenter earning him 50 ‘Road’ points and assuring him of a place in the gate at Churchill Downs on May 7.
On paper, this looked to be the most informative Derby prep yet with five major contenders all bidding to stamp their passport to the first leg of the Triple Crown, but Epicenter turned a competitive contest into a one-horse parade, grabbing the lead from the gate and setting a steady pace, twelving them to death round the New Orleans circuit.
Joel Rosario was still sitting quietly as Epicenter turned for home and within a few strides the race was in the bag, the 7-2 joint-second-choice drawing off in mid-stretch before being eased in the closing stages, crossing the line two and three-quarter lengths ahead of favourite Smile Happy, who did all his best work late without ever looking likely to trouble the winner. He in turn had a half-length to spare over Zandon, who raced in rear early and kept on gamely through the lane.
Epicenter stopped the clock in 1:49 and change; the two other main fancies were hugely disappointing, with Slow Down Andy never a threat in sixth and Pappacap dropping right away from the turn, finishing eighth.
“This was exactly where we needed to be today,” said trainer Steve Asmussen, who has yet to win a Derby, and saddled runners-up Nehro (2011) and Lookin At Lee (2017). “We need to continue to get better and stronger and end up where we want to be.”
Epicenter, a son of Not This Time, is now three-for-five and sits atop the standings in the ‘Road to the Kentucky Derby’ series with 64 points. He will be pointed towards the $1 million Grade 2 Louisiana Derby back at the Fair Grounds on March 26 before heading to Churchill Downs. No target has yet been announced for the hitherto unbeaten Smile Happy, whose tally of 30 RTKD points may well be sufficient to put him, too, in the gate for the Derby.
Rachel Alexandra Stakes
Turnerloose turns up Oaks heat
More Classic clues were on offer in the Rachel Alexandra, and there was a mild upset when Turnerloose booked her spot in the Kentucky Oaks with a battling victory on her first start on the main track, after four races on turf last year.
The daughter of Nyquist raced behind the pace under Florent Geroux, was committed to the fray down the centre of the track with an eighth to run, and showed a heap of determination to reel in Goddess Of Fire close home for a half-length success. Turnerloose covered the distance in 1:44 and one-fifth and paid off at $37; Awake At Midnyte was third, two and three-quarter lengths back but a head in front of the favourite Hidden Connection.
“There weren’t many options for her on turf, and she’s bred for dirt,” said trainer Brad Cox, regarding the switch in surface. “Now the goal is obviously the Kentucky Oaks, so we’ll let the dust settle and see how she comes out of this.”
Early leader La Crete, a half-sister to Grade 1 winner Clairiere, fractured her right front leg halfway down the backstretch and was vanned off the track. Trainer Steve Asmussen reported her injury to be not life-threatening.
Track record for Olympiad
New world records are a feature of the Olympics; the horse named after the quadrennial sports extravaganza was also in record-breaking form, lowering the track best with a sizzling display in the Mineshaft.
Olympiad, an even-money shot to make his stakes breakthrough for trainer Bill Mott, sat next to the fractions set by Silver Prospector until locking horns with the leader at the top of the lane. He put that rival away at the eighth pole and drew off to score by two and a quarter lengths, with second-favourite Miles D a length away third. Olympiad stopped the clock in 1:42.01, beating the old record by 0.01s.
“He’s the kind of horse who makes your job really easy,” said winning jockey Junior Alvarado. “I think the longer stretch helped him a lot, he needs a sixteenth of a mile or longer before he starts picking it up, and he galloped out with his ears pricked and came back not even blowing.”
Olympiad, a four-year-old son of Speightstown, is now four-for-seven and could be a contender to hook some bigger fish, with the Grade 2 New Orleans Classic back at the Fair Grounds at the end of next month a potential target.
Fair Grounds Stakes
Cavalry leads the charge
The inconsistencies of the generally weak turf division were shown in clear light when 35-1 chance Cavalry Charge, having his first start in Graded company, made the most of an easy lead to win the Fair Grounds for trainer Dallas Stewart and jockey Brian Hernandez.
That doesn’t mean to say it wasn’t an exciting race, though, as challengers were coming at the leader from all across the track through the final sixteenth, but Cavalry Charge had enough in the locker to hold on by a head from the fast-finishing Adhamo, with Halo Again a head further back in third and Santin a neck away fourth in a blanket finish. The time for the nine furlongs was a tick over 1:53.
“It got close, we felt them coming, but he’s gutsy and fought it out to the end,” said Hernandez. Cavalry Charge is likely to stay at the Fair Grounds and target the Grade 2 Muniz Memorial Classic on March 26.
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