The Racing Form gave the Fair Grounds the nod for having the best stakes schedule in the country Saturday.
And it was.
On as perfect a weather day you can get in January:
- The Lecomte winner International Star put owners Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey on the same path they followed to Vicar’s in Trouble winning the Louisiana Derby a year ago.
- Silverbulletday winner I’m a Chatterbox and Louisiana Stakes winner Hard Aces continued the personal physical recovery of trainer Larry Jones.
- Notte D’Oro’s victory in the Marie Krantz Memorial gave the track’s redone turf course a boost.
- And Col. E.R. Bradley winner String King proved that the little guys can still win.
Taking that last one first.
Haughton-based owner/trainer Charles C. Smith has only two horses in training, one of which is three-time Louisiana Champions Turf winner String King.
But the String King, a seven-year-old Louisiana-bred gelding, has never been able to win against better company. And Saturday he was going against a field that included 2013 Kentucky Derby runner-up Golden Soul and Gentleman’s Kitten, owned by the aforementioned Ramseys and being ridden on this day by Hall of Famer Mike Smith.
String King, winner of 14 of his previous 33 starts and ridden by Fair Grounds leader James Graham, paid no attention to any of that, overtaking Gentlemen’s Kitten in mid-stretch to win on the turf.
“I can’t think of anything that would be better than winning the Kentucky Derby,” a delighted Smith said. “And to tell you the truth, I’d rather win a stakes race here rather than in Louisville because it’s in front of the home folks.
“It’s more fun.”
Plus, Smith added, beating a powerhouse stable like the Ramsey’s, a jockey like Mike Smith makes it all the sweeter.
“People can be in this game years, and years and years and never have a horse this good,” said Smith, who four years ago turned down $250,000 for String King. “I could never dream about the horses and money Ken Ramsey has.
“But I’ve got a good rider and if I was lucky today, I’d rather be lucky than good. This was sweet justice.”
Chances are, the Ramseys will be less upset about losing the Bradley than happy about winning the Lecomte.
Vicar’s in Trouble did it last year and wound up winning the Louisiana Derby as well, becoming only the second Louisiana-bred to do so.
The next step for International Star, who had six starts as a 2-year-old, second most in Saturday’s field of 11, will likely be the Feb. 22 Risen Star where the quality of the field will be stiffer as the winnowing process for Derby hopefuls begins in earnest.
As Hall of Fame jockey Calvin Borel, who rode fourth-place finisher Another Lemon Drop said, “they’ve been in races for babies before this.
“Today was a boys race and from here on in, it’ll be for men.”
Certainly Tom Amoss will send runner-up War Story forward, but favored Eagle, who was bumped early and never threatened, finishing seventh, may give his connections second thoughts.
Less than a year ago, veteran trainer Larry Jones was in a drug-induced coma following a spill during a workout in Delaware.
Saturday, Jones, still not fully recovered, got a 1-3 finish in the Louisiana Stakes with Hard Aces and Albano and then the eighth-lengths victory in the Silverbulletday by I’m a Chatterbox, who was running under his guidance for the first time.
“I told Floren (jockey Floren Geroux) to ride her like you own her and need the money really bad,” Jones said.
Sounds like the fall didn’t dampen Jones’ sense of humor.
I’m a Chatterbox will be back in the Rachel Alexandra, along with Dallas Stewart-trained Forever Unbridled, who finished second in the race her full sister, Unbridled Forever, won last year.
But like Eagle, the future of Top Decile, the Al Stall-trained Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies runner-up, must be rethought.
Racing can be unforgiving.
But that’s not the case for the horsemen, who are giving a thumbs-up to the restored turf course, the prime cause of so much criticism for the Fair Grounds last year.
Charles Smith said he had considered running String King at Sam Houston Park in Houston this winter instead of the Fair Grounds. But he liked the way the turf felt for both his horse and others, so he stayed around for the Bradley and will have a go at Mervin Muniz Handicap on Louisiana Derby Day.
For the oft-battered, sometimes-beleaguered Fair Grounds management, that made Saturday a good day indeed.