When 15 3-year-olds entered Friday for the Jan. 16 Lecomte Stakes, Fair Grounds assistant racing secretary Scott Jones understandably was excited.
The number is one more than the maximum allowed, and it represents a recent continued increase for one of the track’s biggest races.
“We’re very excited,” Jones said. “It’s obviously a big field for us. Only two or three years ago, we had a five-horse field. Last year, we had 11. (The large number) is just circumstantial; we just had a large number of horses on the backside this year.”
The 72nd running of the $200,000 Lecomte is the biggest of three races Saturday. More important, it is the fist leg of the Fair Grounds’ road to the Louisiana Derby. The second leg is the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes, which will be run Feb. 20.
The Louisiana Derby will be run on March 26 with entrants vying for a spot in the Kentucky Derby. The races are part of a points system, although other criteria goes into it.
“The Lecomte is worth 20 points, the Risen Star 50 points and the Louisiana Derby 100 points,” Jones said. “As long as these horses generate enough points along the way, they usually go on to start in the Kentucky Derby.”
The other two big races Saturday are the $150,000 SilverBulletDay for 3-year-old fillies and the $125,000 E.R. Bradley Handicap for 4-year-olds and upward. There also will be nine other races with smaller purses.
Jones said the LeComte is generally “a crapshoot” because 3-year-olds at this point of the racing season have not accomplished that much. However, Mo Tom is the horse to beat. Trained by Tom Amoss, Mo Tom is owned by Gayle Benson, wife of Saints owner Tom Benson.
“Mo Tom is the one with the best form,” Jones said, “but 3-year-olds improve so much in a short period of time. But on paper, he is definitely the one to beat.”
Mo Tom won a stakes race at Chuchill Downs over Street Sense in November and finished third in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club, won by Airoforce, who was second in the Breeders’ Juvenile.
Other standout horses in the Lecomte, both which have run only twice, are Todd Pletcher-trained Destin and D. Wayne Lukas-trained Z Royal, which is owned by Zayat Stables, which owns American Pharoah.
“I talked to Lukas on Friday, and he said Z Royal has really matured, and he’s excited to run him at the Fair Grouds,” Jones said. “So that will be interesting to see.”
Three horses are being shipped in — Riding in the Wind, Destined and Z Royal — a bit of a large number for the LeComte.
“The top five horses probably will run in the Risen Star,” Jones said. “We’re always hoping for a blanket finish, where they all finish close, and they’re likely to come back.”
The SilverBulletDay is the prep for the track’s big race for fillies, the March 26 Fair Grounds Oaks. It is part of the road to the Kentucky Oaks.
The favorite is Steve Asmussen-trained Stageplay, who won a Churchill Downs stakes in her second race in a field of 14 and finished second in a Grade II race there. Jet Black Magic, who won the Delta Princess, shapes up as the chief rival.
In the Colonel Bradley, for seasoned horses, Chocolate Ride, who won the Fair Grounds Handicap last February and the Muniz Handicap Grade II turf race in March, will be back. He will be challenged by String King, who won the Colonel Bradley last year and missed out on winning his fourth Champions Day Turf title last month. Also in the race is Hot Zapper, who won the Champions Day turf on Dec. 12.
The Lecomte and SilverBulletDay will be run on dirt and the Bradley and $60,000 Marie G. Krantz Stakes on turf. The $75,000 Louisiana Stakes also will be run. The drawing for post positions will be held Wednesday.