Trainer Edward Johnston said that in most races in which Mobile Bay was entered, competition the calibre of the horses in the Louisiana Champions Day Classic would have a difficult time winning.
However, it has been 10 months since Mobile Bay raced, and that has Johnston — perhaps speaking for all the other race trainers — hopeful.
Mobile Bay, who will be ridden by Diego Saenz, still is the 5-2 favorite to win Saturday's $150,000 Classic at the Fair Grounds, which is for the top Louisiana-bred horses 3-years-old and upward. However, even trainer Victor Arceneaux is not sure how well Mobile Bay will do in the race.
Mobile Bay, a 5-year-old, last raced in the Louisiana-bred Premier Night Championship in February at Delta Downs. He won that race, putting him past $1 million in career earnings.
“We just decided to give him a break after he crossed the million mark,” Arceneaux said. “We'd done a lot of traveling with him.
“We were going to put him in a prep race at Delta about three weeks ago or so, and he quit eating on me a couple of days before the race. Then he developed a fever, and I was forced to scratch him. We're hoping he come back strong.”
Underpressure, trained by Chris Richard and who will be ridden by Corey Lanerie, is the 4-1 second choice. Mageez, a 4-year-old trained by Delmar Caldwell who'll have jockey Mitch Murrell aboard, is the 5-1 third choice along with Grande Basin, who is trained by Johnston and will have Miguel Mena up.
Johnston said that other than Mobile Bay, the rest of the horses are about the same in class. However, he like's Grande Basin's chances because of where the race is and the 1⅛-mile distance.
Grande Basin started his career in 2016 with three consecutive allowance wins between Jan. 17 and March 30. He then had trouble finishing in the money until he was second in an allowance race at the Fair Grounds on March 3 of this year. He followed that with the biggest win of his career, powering to the wire in the Star Guitar Stakes on April 2.
Since then, he has finished out of the money in four races before getting third place in the Heitai Overnight Stakes at the Fair Grounds.
“He likes the Fair Grounds, the race track itself,” Johnston said. “Those first few allowance race wins were at the Fair Grounds. The Star Guitar win was at the Fair Grounds, and the recent third place.
“In those other races — at Delta (Downs), Evangeline and Louisiana Downs — are speed-biased. He likes the quarter-mile stretch (to the wire).”
The Star Guitar Stakes is the same distance as Saturday's Classic. Grande Basin. Johnston said he is a notoriously slow starter with a big kick to the finish line, perfect for this race.
“We wanted to give him the opportunity to finish like he did in the Star Guitar,” he said. “The Fair Grounds' track gives him the opportunity to get in position where he doesn't have to hustle, hustle, hustle.
“In the Star Guitar, he broke from the gate and was seventh. Then, he moved his way up to fourth. And, then he just came on home. It was a good effort.”
Arceneaux said Mobile Bay is fit and sound, and he wouldn't be surprised If he did well Saturday.
“He's been working out as good as he ever has,” Arceneaux said. “But it's (been) a long stretch without running to go and run a mile and an eighth against good stake horses. I'm just hoping we have a good trip and that the horse can come back to form like what he once was.”
Layoff or not, Johnston said Grande Basin, Underpressure, Mageez et al will need help to beat Mobile Bay.
“The key to the race is if somebody presses Mobile Bay for the first part and makes him perform a little quicker than he wants to,” Johnston said. “It will soften him up a little bit for us.
“Mobile Bay is a sound horse, and he has a good trainer, so I don't think the layoff will hurt him that much. But if he misses a step, we'll have an opportunity.”