Stakes recaps by the Fair Grounds publicity team of Joe Kristufek and Kevin Kilroy (Hodges Photography photo above of Epicenter):
New Orleans (December 26, 2021) – Victories in the 2016 Risen Star (G2) and Louisiana Derby (G2) put Gun Runner on a path towards nearly $16 million in career earnings on the track and leading first crop sire honors off of it. On Sunday at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, the Not This Time colt Epicenter took another step towards a potentially brighter future for the same connections with an authoritative 6 ½ length victory in the inaugural $100,000 Gun Runner Stakes, earning 10 Kentucky Derby points along the way.
The Gun Runner was just one of six stakes run on the post-Christmas, 13-race “Road to the Derby Kickoff Day” card.
“To be able to win the inaugural running of the Gun Runner today is special for us,” Steve Asmussen’s assistant trainer Scott Blasi said. “Gun Runner had his start and a number of breakout performances here at the Fair Grounds, and to see what he has done in the stallion barn has been historical — he’s the leading two-year-old juvenile stallion in the world. To be able to win this race for the Winchell family is very special.”
Sent off as the 2.90-1 second choice despite morning-line favoritism, Epicenter broke alertly from post position one under Brian Hernandez, Jr. He settled just off the flank of the pacesetting Surfer Dude (10.30-1) through even early fractions of 24.41 and 47.76. Still in hand entering the turn, he took over right at the quarter pole, and extended his margin of victory down to the wire. Earning 4 Derby points, Tejano Twist (4.60-1), who made a run at the leader at the 3 1/16ths pole, evened out a bit late, while remaining two lengths clear of the pacesetting Surfer Dude (2 Derby points), who held the show spot. Kevin’s Folly earned 1 Derby point for finishing fourth. Epicenter stopped the clock in 1:44.19 for the 1 1/16 miles. A bit rank early, Rocket Dawg finished a distant sixth as the .80-1 favorite.
“I walked down in the paddock and Scott (Blasi) told me how much they liked him,” said Hernandez, Jr., who won three on the day. “I remember watching him (Epicenter) run at Churchill. Same sort of scenario as today. I was actually on Surfer Dude (that day) and he was outside me. Going into the turn you could tell he traveled so good and he was much the best that day. Going off of that race he looked like he had a lot of ability and he showed it today. Any time you get a horse that has tactical speed, especially here (at Fair Grounds), that helps a lot. That’s the nice thing about him, you know, for only his third race, he put himself in position and all I had to do was be a quiet passenger and let him do his thing.”
A tired sixth on debut over seven furlongs at Churchill on September 18, Epicenter bounced back with a huge performance over a one-turn mile seven weeks later in his follow-up start, pressing the pace and drawing out to win by 3 ½ lengths with a huge gallop out over a Louisville strip that was not kind to forward horses on the day. With the Gun Runner win, Epicenter now sports a 3-2-0-1 record with earnings of $130,639.
“We love his tactical speed, his ability to put himself in position to do well and Brian did a great job with him today to let the speed go on, and change sides,” Blasi said. “He’s still lightly raced, still learning, but hopefully there are some big things to come.”
The next Fair Grounds points race on the Road to the Kentucky Derby is the Lecomte (G3) on Saturday, January 22.
Trainer Bret Calhoun was pleased with the effort of runner-up Tejano Twist, who was making his two-turn debut in career start number nine off a victory in the Lively Shively Stakes at Churchill.
“We thought he handled it very well,” Calhoun said “At the end of the day his true calling against better competition might have to be as a closing sprinter. I think he handled that fine. I just don’t really envision him running against top horses at 1 ¼ miles. He handled his first test well, but the horse that beat him had one start and we had our chance off the turn and he drew off from him. I’ll talk to the owner (Tom Durant) and we’ll go from there. Overall, very happy with the horse, ran great. He passed that two-turn test.” — Kristufek
North County Unflappable in Untapable
Three starts. Three venues. Three racing surfaces. Make it three wins, all around two turns, for Rebecca Hillen, Stonecrest Farm and Bruno De Julio’s North County, who took down the inaugural running of the $100,000 Untapable Stakes on Sunday, earning 10 Kentucky Oaks points in the process.
A winner on turf at Indiana Grand and over a sloppy track at Keeneland, North County displayed professionalism, and on Sunday she proved her merits over a fast track and against tougher competition.
Away alertly with Adam Beschizza astride, North County, the 3.90-1 third choice, put herself in an outside stalking position while chasing the 23.75, 47.86 early fractions set by Shotgun Hottie and a chasing Fannie and Freddie (8.00-1), who took over at the 3/16ths pole. Fannie and Freddie took a clear advantage into the stretch, but North County ran her down in determined fashion, edging past to score by a neck in a final time of 1:43.17 for 1 mile & 70 yards.
“She’s very tough, very agile, and she’s really done nothing wrong since she broke her maiden in Indiana,” said Beschizza, who has been aboard the daughter of Not This Time in all three starts. “She’s shown she’s very universal and either surface doesn’t seem to hinder her. She’s small tough and mighty. After her Keeneland allowance win she was he was working really well and we confident moving forward into this.”
Fanny and Freddie earned 4 Oaks points for finishing second. Cocktail Moments, the .60-1 favorite, broke sluggishly, ran into some traffic, and finished on her left lead to be third, beaten 3 ½ lengths by the winner (2 Oaks points). It was another 1 ½ lengths to the pacesetting Shotgun Hottie in fourth (1 Oaks point).
“She ran a good race,” jockey Colby Hernandez said of Fannie and Freddie. “She gave me a good break, I sat on her till the last minute and she kicked on, but North County ran her down.”
Perfect from three starts, North County ran her bankroll up to $132,000.
“She showed a lot of heart today which is impressive,” assistant trainer Paul Madden said. “She had been training really good and Brendan (trainer Walsh) was anxious to put her in a spot like this to see if she could fit in this company, and thankfully we do. She’s a filly that is going to get stronger as well and I think there’s more to come from her. She is very talented, has a good mind and wants to win races.”
The $100,000 Silverbulletday on January 22 is the next stop on Fair Grounds Road to the Kentucky Oaks series of races.
“It will come down to some discussions with Brendan, but there is a reason why he stables here and now we as owners now have a reason to look forward to those big races,” said Brian Reed, representing Stonecrest Farm. “Ideally she will stay here and run in the next race in the series.” — Kristufek
Halo Again Wires the Diliberto Memorial in Turf Debut
Never on turf in a nine-race career that had seen him win once on fast dirt and twice on synthetics, Winchell Thoroughbreds and Willis Horton Racing’s Halo Again went to the lead and never looked back in the $75,000 Buddy Diliberto Memorial, posting a 14.40-1 upset in his first ever try on grass.
Away alertly, the 4-year-old Ontario-bred son of Speightstown seized early command while in hand to jockey Reylu Gutierrez. With Forty Under (10.10-1) perched to his outside through early fractions of 23.55 and 47.95, Halo Again began to inch away from that foe at the 3 1/16ths pole. He then withstood the late rush of both Pixelate (2.60-1) to score by a half-length in a final time of 1:43.22 for 1 1/16 miles over the Stall-Wilson turf course. It was another neck back to the deep closing Monarchs Glen (7.00-1). Bet down from his 8-1 morning line, 1.80-1 favorite Big Dreaming sat a pocket trip and finished an even fifth.
In one short month at Fair Grounds, jockey Reylu Gutierrez has made quite a name for himself, and Sunday’s performance will only raise his stock.
“It means the world,” Gutierrez said of a hot start at the Fair Grounds meet which finds him fourth in the standings with 13 wins from 65 opportunities (20%). “The credit goes to (agent) Jose Santos. We’re everywhere — I rode at Turfway on Thursday, here at Fair Grounds, at Oaklawn. I’m just trying to work as hard. I’d like to be a part of at least one horse for every stable on this backside get everybody to know me. I’ll ride for anybody. It doesn’t have to be a favorite. This was a $30 winner. I am young and I am hungry.”
Halo Again, who ran eighth behind Enforceable in the 2020 Lecomte (G3), boosted his career record to 10-4-1-1 with earnings of $296,736. It was the second of three wins on the card for trainer Steve Asmussen.
“He’s run a lot over synthetic before,” assistant trainer Scott Blasi said. “He came down her and has had a good winter so far, so we weren’t surprised by the outcome.”
It was another tough defeat for Mike Stidham-trained Pixelate, who lost a neck decision at the hooves Another Mystery in the Bob Wright Memorial here last month.
“Whenever he wins its either by a nose or a neck, and he loses in the same way,” jockey Angel Suarez said. “Pixelate is a really tricky horse to ride. You can’t let him have the lead too easy because then he’ll wait on horses. He needs to have some company, someone to follow so that’s what happened today. I didn’t think there was going to be that much pace. The turf is soft, and I thought it was going to be in my favor because I was going to make a wide move and go for the best part of the track, but nobody but pressure on the 4 horse (Halo Again). I saw the 5 (favorite Big Dreaming) but he didn’t scare me too much. He was on my inside so I said, okay, I have him where I want him. I rode my horse like the best horse, but once I took a peek to the leader in the stretch and saw (Halo Again) I thought, oh I’m in trouble.” — Kristufek
New Owners Same Outcome: Summer in Saratoga Wins Again for Joe Sharp
Today it was The Blushing KD $75,000 at Fair Grounds — last time out it was the Dowager (G3) at Keeneland — only difference being for Summer in Saratoga: the new owners. After a private purchase, Narola LLC and Anderson Farms Ontarion saw that Summer in Saratoga was in good hands and decided to keep the 5-year old mare in Joe Sharp’s barn. Sharp brought regular rider Corey Lanerie down for the 1 1/16 miles run over the turf and this 5-year-old mare by Hard Spun just keeps rolling.
“We get along so well for some reason or another,” Lanerie said, who has ridden this turf mare to all 7 of her wins. “She’s just a good horse. She makes my job easy. Joe [Sharp] gets her ready and brings her over. I just try not to mess it up. She’s a fun horse to ride.”
And the bettors saw it coming: post time favorite at 1.30-1, Summer in Saratoga broke well and settled to the rear, allowing pacesetter 7.00-1 Advocating to set honest fractions at 23.70, 47.82, and 1:11.54. After stalking in second, third-place finisher 15.90-1 Catch a Bid took a two and a half length lead by the mile pole at 1:36.21 but it would not last. Coming into the stretch, Summer in Saratoga made her move to the lead with 3.10-1 closer Bellagamba moving along with her and in the final sixteenth the closers’ duel was on but Summer in Saratoga prevailed, leaving Bellagamba a neck shy.
“Coming along the backside I got a little anxious that I was getting too far back,” Lanerie said. “But then all I did was call on her and she put me where she needs to be. From the 3/16th pole home I was pretty confident.”
Ridden by James Graham, Bellagamba has two game seconds and one third in her four tries since joining Igancio Correas barn from Argentina.
“A bit more ground I think is all that I am looking for,” Graham said “The filly beat us fair and square today. She never drew away from us which is encouraging to me. When we picked up turning for home, we picked up as one. The race setup was perfect. A little bit more ground might do her some good.”
In 17 starts, she has 7 wins, 1 second and 2 thirds for lifetime earnings of $476,822. New owners, new plan for Summer in Saratoga? We’ll have to wait to see what is in store for her, but look for at least one more run before possibly heading to the broodmare barn.
“She’s been a filly we’ve been able to rely on every time we lead her over,” Sharp said. “She’s been a fun ride for our barn and with Highlander [her previous owners] it was great, then making the transition over to new ownership and them trusting us to keep her in training and to get a return on their dividends right away was icing on the cake. She owes us nothing at this point. I am a big fan of hers, obviously, and so proud to see her get it done. It’s race to race. Definitely you’ll see us back in the next one and from there we’ll see how it goes.” – Kilroy
“I think it was her best race since she was in America,” Bellagmaba’s trainer Ignacio Correas said. “She is facing better company every time she runs and she is stepping up. We are happy. After the first there is nothing better than the second. We got beat by a good filly.”
Just Might’s Versatility Shines in Richard Scherer
The last time they battled each other on the turf, Manny Wah’s debut performance on the surface ended with a jaw-dropping turn of foot to pass Just Might, leaving many eagerly awaiting his return, including Just Might. Almost one year later, Griffon Farms and Michelle Lovell’s sprint star turned the tables to win the $75,000 Richard R Scherer turf sprint, leaving Manny Wah to settle for second-place honors.
Opposite of last time, even money favorite 1.00-1 Just Might was able to set measured fractions of 22.48, 46.07, 57.76 and win in 1:04.12 for the 5 ½ panels after jockey Colby Hernandez got him away sharply and went to the lead. 7.70-1 Field Day seemed to be up to the task of dueling after staying within a head through the opening quarter, but that head soon grew to a length and a half. With no one tight to the early leaders, Just Might extended his advantage to 2 ½ into the stretch, but at that point jockey Corey Lanerie had 2.40-1 Manny Wah running second with third-place finisher 19.90-1 Pyron in fourth on the rail and closing hard. Just Might ran on to win, as Manny Wah battled Pyron and stretched a head in front for second.
“We broke well, a good sharp break and got up there,” regular rider Colby Hernandez said. “Going through the turn loose on the lead I thought it’s all over from here. Michelle (trainer Lovell) and her team do such a good job with this horse, who has also matured. I don’t think it matters the turf or dirt, he runs anywhere.”
After winning the Thanksgiving Classic at Fair Grounds, Just Might is the meet-leading earner thus far with $139,500. This Justin Phillip homebred raised his record to 32-10-7-6 with lifetime earnings of $830,414.
“I really believe that this horse [Just Might] is doing better than he has ever been,” assistant trainer Chad Mouton said. “He is maturing so much, he is doing fantastic. I’ll leave [the road to the Breeders’ Cup] up to Michelle and the owner. We’re excited about everything and I feel fortunate to be around a horse of his caliber.”
Maybe the Breeders’ Cup is in his future. As for Manny Wah, in pre-race interview trainer Wayne Catalano said as much about his 5-year- old son of Will Take Charge. Jockey Corey Lanerie will be hoping for firmer ground, if they stick to turf.
“I’d rather the turf be a little firmer,” Lanerie said. “When we first came out on the backside he kept switching leads for one reason or another. But he ran a great race. Just Might is a tough horse who is running good right now and we just couldn’t beat him today but my horse ran, gave me his race and that is it. Top of the lane I wouldn’t have traded places with anybody. I think he’ll benefit from this one and we’ll see [what’s next].”
But before next fall, keep your fingers crossed for “Just Might vs Manny Wah Turf Round 3.” – Kilroy
Tenacious Chess Chief Uses Home Court to His Advantage
The $100,000 Tenacious Stakes lived up to its name as a game front-runner Pirate’s Punch would not go quietly, and the two late-chargers Chess Chief and Happy American wouldn’t give an inch battling down to the wire late. A nose was the difference as the Estate of James J. Coleman Jr.’s Chess Chief recorded his 5th career win, all at Fair Grounds, while boosting his overall record to 30-5-4-4 with earnings of $810,338.
After sharp fractions of 23.75, 47.20, 1:11.83, 1:37.00 were set by 6.40-1 Pirate’s Punch, the closers got their chance. Stalking two-wide between horses through the first turn, jockey Reylu Gutierrez rode 10.10-1 Chess Chief four-wide through the second bend and then unleashed him into the stretch in full blitz at the leader. After bobbling to start, James Graham settled 3.40-1 Happy American sat far back early while saving ground, and picked up steam with every furlong. When Pirate’s Punch began to tire, Happy American, with a brilliant ride from James Graham, popped off the rail to masterfully find a seam to pass between horses and get the lead, while Dallas Stewart-trained Chess Chief joined him from the center, engaged and prevailed.
“He was very sharp today,” Gutierrez said. “I watched his winning race in last year’s New Orleans Classic (G2) win and he was taken back, but today he stayed up there. It was tight down the backside. I wanted to keep him engaged, keep him close. Keep him following someone. Horses are herd animals. They like to follow something and I had to fight my way into the clear. Once I got clear I was close enough to the lead to get out and let him run his race. Neil Pessin, Jimmy Graham give them credit, they came running in the end (with Happy American) and I was nervous I’m not going to lie. What a battle, a classic race between these two horses. Thank you to Dallas Stewart for this opportunity, I appreciate it.”
Jockey Brain Hernandez Jr. settled the 1.80-1 favorite Shared Sense further back than usual, running second, to last 8 lengths off the pace through the opening ½ and then passing tiring rivals when giving a late bid to finish fourth.
Take nothing away from Happy American, a horse who was a nose short of stringing together three wins in a row.
“He ran his race,” Graham said. “That Chess Chief is just a cool horse. I won on him here. But I’ll take it, my horse is great. He didn’t break his maiden until last summer. We tried putting him close, he got really aggressive and still ran well, just not the way he had in the past.”
The last time Chess Chief entered the winner’s circle was at Fair Grounds in the New Orleans Classic on March 20. He had been no better than fifth in his last six starts entering Sunday’s assignment.
“Couldn’t be a better place to win right here for the Coleman family,” Dallas Stewart said. “Their father [the late James Coleman] was great about buying this horse, and he is here with us today. Chess Chief ran against the best and we kept trying to win a grade 1. Maybe we’ll do it next year, but we’re gonna try to clean up here first.”
A quality win on his home court was encouraging to the connections who have consistently been aggressive entering Chess Chief in graded stakes races, last out being the Clark (G1) where he finished 12 lengths back from Maxfield. – Kilroy