NEW ORLEANS — Jon Court was all alone.
Shipped into the Fair Grounds Race Course specifically to ride Bluegrass Hall, LLC’s Oxbow in the 69th running of the Lecomte Stakes on Saturday, there was no one anywhere near him when he crossed the finish line in the Lecomte.
After a dominant, wire-to-wire effort that culminated in a massive 111/2-length victory, Court, who has 3,000-plus career wins, stood in the winners circle holding the massive crystal bowl given to the Lecomte winner by himself. Owner Brad Kelley and trainer D. Wayne Lukas, a four-time Kentucky Derby winner, were in absentia for the actual race.
Despite such isolation, Court still had a wide smile on his face after a performance that earned the mount a leg up in the path to the Kentucky Derby.
“I actually thought I’d be one-two-three, but Wayne said don’t be surprised if you find yourself on the lead,” Court said after the $200,000 race. “He just said to be relaxed, and he wanted to see (Oxbow) happy with a smile on in the bit, and he can win this race, and that’s exactly how it turned out.”
The Lecomte was the crowning contest of the Fair Grounds’ Road to the Derby Kickoff Day Saturday, in which the facility began the final stretch to the landmark 100th running of the prestigious Louisiana Derby on March 30.
The day’s two other feature races, the 67th running of the $100,000 Louisiana Handicap and the 21st staging of the $125,000 Silverbulletday Stakes, were won by Infrattini and Touch Magic. Infrattini was jockeyed by Miguel Mena, while James Graham guided Touch Magic.
The Lecomte, for 3-year-old mounts, and the Silverbulletday, for 3-year-old fillies, were the first graded stakes of the Fair Grounds’ 2012-13 meet, and they each earned their placers points toward the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks as part of a brand new qualifying system instituted by Churchill Downs this year.
The victories by Oxbow and Touch Magic were both fairly significant upsets, with the favorites for each contest — Gal About Town in the Silverbulletday and Avie’s Quality in the Lecomte — fading in the home stretch. Avie’s was a particular disappointment after coming into the Lecomte at 5/2 by finishing a distant eighth.
While the Lecomte was no contest, the day’s first big race, the Louisiana Handicap, featured a thrilling finish.
Infrattini and Mena started the home stretch two lengths behind the favorite, mount Mark Valeski and jockey Rosie Napravnik, but closed fast from the outside and nosed out the favorite by a half-length at the end.
Mena jockeyed Infrattini, who’s trained by Paul McGee, multiple times in the past, and said the 5-year-old gelding “keeps getting better and better. ... Today, for me, is his best race.”
Infrattini owner Mike Zlaket of Z Thoroughbreds — a stable with only two horses total — said he was so thrilled with Infrattini’s performance Saturday that he almost guaranteed a repeat appearance.
“It’s an old cliché, but you take them one at a time, because you just don’t know on any given day, but if the horse stays sound and stays at this level, we’ll be looking for all of the big ones, at this distance,” Zlaket said. “I think he likes a mile and a 1/16th. He exploded at a one-turn mile. We might very well be back here in a month and if not, we’ll take a look at something in early March.”
The Silverbulletday, meanwhile, suffered a setback even before the post call, when one of the favorites, Seaneen Girl, was scratched by trainer Bernie Flint. But the race didn’t suffer, with a cluster of horses in contention by the time they turned into the final stretch. Eventually, Touch Magic and Gal About Town pulled away from the pack, and in the end Magic had established a comfortable winning cushion.
Touch Magic trainer Pat Devereux predicted that his mount’s win Saturday foreshadowed more success.
“She hasn’t done anything wrong, and she still hasn’t,” he said. “It seemed like the better she settled, the better she ran, and I think there is better in there.”