Triple Crown: Louisiana Derby picks and analysis

The Grade 2 Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds has become a top prep for the Kentucky Derby, boasting 100 points to the winner, as well as a solid resume for recent participants as three-year-olds. 

Run at 1 3/16 miles – the only prep at the distance – the Louisiana Derby is a good measuring stick for entries who are looking to stretch out to the classic ten-furlong distance. With recent winners Epicenter, Hot Rod Charlie, and Gun Runner further back, this tuneup has gained steam among the top across the country, adding two Derby winners by disqualification in Country House and Mandaloun, who also competed in this prep. 

Todd Pletcher leads the way with five lifetime Louisiana Derby wins, followed closely by Steve Asmussen with four. Both trainers will saddle colts in this year’s field; a potential three for Pletcher and two for Asmussen. While Pletcher has the quantity, Asmussen’s Track Phantom enters as the 3/1 morning line favorite after a second-place finish in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes over this track a month ago. With another tough outside post in a field of 12, Track Phantom won’t have it any easier this time around in a well-stocked field full of Derby potential.

The Risen Star Stakes began with Track Phantom controlling modest fractions all the way around, only to be run down by a late-charging Sierra Leone in the stretch. Returning jockey Joel Rosario and Track Phantom held on for second, picking up 25 Derby points in the process, bringing his total to 55. Even if he doesn’t hit the board here, those points should be enough to reach the gate at Churchill, but Asmussen’s top runner still needs to show some improvement to be a consistent factor going forward. It is possible that he simply ran into a better horse that day, and he should be in prime position once again in a field that has shown little to no early speed in their past performances. 

Asmussen has high hopes for Track Phantom going forward, telling Fair Grounds publicity, “He’s a wonderful horse. I’m very fortunate to have him for the 3-year-old series here. He has run extremely well in the three previous (Derby preps). Hopefully we can get back to the winner’s circle with him on Saturday. Obviously, we like his chances.” 

Similar fractions to the Risen Star likely gets it done for the Rosario and Asmussen duo here, but another outside post will force Track Phantom out quickly in the early goings. Getting a fast track could also be a benefit, as the sloppy surface in the Risen Star may have led to some tiring in the deep stretch. 

Asmussen’s “other” runner, Hall of Fame, may not have the resume of Track Phantom, but sold for $1.4 million as a yearling and flashed his talent when breaking his maiden by 10 lengths at the Fair Grounds in late January. Although he struggled in the Risen Star last time out, a more forward trip and a faster track could be enough for this colt by Gun Runner-Flag Day, by Giant’s Causeway to take the next step in his young career. At morning line odds of 8/1, this one will likely fly under the radar and should be good value here if another runner targets Track Phantom early and sets up a stalking or mid-pack trip to finish strong.

The second morning line choice at 4/1 is not one of the Todd Pletcher entries, but the returning Brad Cox runner Catching Freedom. Breaking from the five post, this colt closed nicely to finish third by a length-and-a-half in the Risen Star last time, despite the lack of pace there. Already with 25 Derby points, this may not be the best race for him to win assuming the pace is on the slower side again, but this one is still a top contender here who may end up improving more going forward and adding distance. 

Agate Road enters with the lowest morning line odds of the three Pletcher entries at 8/1, but may opt for Turfway’s Jeff Ruby Steaks run on the same day for the same Derby points. Picking up Irad Ortiz here is a good sign, but this is another that has primarily showed his top form as a deep closer. After switching to the dirt last time in the Grade III Sam Davis Stakes at Tampa, Agate Road moved from second to last by twelve lengths to finish second by a length and a quarter at the wire. He figures to factor in to the late charge no matter what the pace is here, likely closing from off the lead with Catching Freedom.

Track Phantom
Track Phantom won the Lecomte Stakes. Photo by Hodges Photography / Lou Hodges, Jr.

Breaking to the inside of Agate Road is his stablemate Antiquarian from the three post at slightly longer morning line odds of 12/1. With only two career maiden tries, both at Fair Grounds, this one might be a bit overmatched here. A step forward will be needed to compete, but this may be the lone runner who will look to apply some pressure to Track Phantom from the jump. Antiquarian has started as a close second in both efforts, gaining a lead in each try in the stretch and holding on last time out at a mile and one sixteenth. While he likely isn’t a winner, if Track Phantom has difficulties with the pace, it could be this one pushed early by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez looking to set up the other Pletcher closers.

Perhaps the sneakiest of these runners is Common Defense, a 6/1 morning line McPeek trainee who recently put forth a career-best effort finishing second in the Grade 2 Rebel at Oaklawn in February. That try saw him close from mid pack at 27/1 odds to make things difficult for the eventual winner Timberlake in the stretch. His speed figure there puts him in the mix with the top grouping here, but will likely need to stay a bit closer to the lead to have any real chance. This may be one that needs a dry surface to stay a factor, and may prefer going eight furlongs versus this slightly longer distance. Still, a repeat of his last race could be enough to hit the board even in this bigger field.

Sierra Leone will likely be aimed towards the Grade I Blue Grass in Keeneland two weekends from now, leaving Chad Brown with another lightly-raced entry here looking to tackle Track Phantomrow. This time, Tuscan Gold, a $600,000 yearling, breaking inside of Track Phantom as an 8/1 longshot. Tuscan Gold certainly has prime bloodlines by Medaglia d’Oro-Valadorna, by Curlin, and flashed his potential, winning by six lengths last time in his second career start. Going a 1 1/16 miles at Gulfstream, Tuscan Gold pulled away from that six horse field from mid-pack, but will need to close quicker this time around. He hasn’t yet shown quite the level of Sierra Leone, who had the talent to chase down Track Phantom, so this race might be a measuring stick for Chad who looks to get a second three year old into the gate at Churchill. 

The last horse of note who has races that are good enough to put him in the mix is Honor Marie, a winner of the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill in November. From the seven hole at 8/1, this colt has one of the strongest closing kicks of this group but needs to stay closer to the lead than in the Risen Star last time out. Like a few others here, a dry track is important, and added distance might be more beneficial to him than any runner of this field.

Honor Marie’s trainer, D. Whitworth Beckham agrees, telling Fair Grounds publicity, “He’ll like the distance. This horse to me is a true mile-and-a-quarter horse.” 

A strong finish here could be enough to add to his already ten Derby points, giving him an opportunity to showcase his preference for added distance once again in Kentucky in May.

A larger Louisiana Derby field makes for some intriguing betting opportunities as well as a launching point for a potential Kentucky Derby starter to gain points. With very little pace here, it may be difficult for the others to close and catch Track Phantom, who will likely have similar control as he did in the Risen Star. Avoiding Sierra Leone leaves him as the most likely given the lack of pace shown by this field, unless an unexpected runner displays some improvement, or gets an assist from a longshot in the early stages. Nevertheless, recent years have shown the improvement of the Fair Grounds prep races, as their winners and participants have gone on to run some of their best career races on the first Saturday in May. 

The Louisiana Derby is the twelfth race on Fair Ground’s Saturday card with a post time of 6:42 EDT.


1. #12 Track Phantom (3-1)

2. #2 Hall of Fame (8-1) 

3. #5 Catching Freedom (4-1) 

4. #7 Honor Marie (8-1)