Ahmed Zayat had the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) favorite a year ago until the mega-talented Eskendereya was injured only a couple of weeks prior to the race. It was a bitter pill to swallow that Zayat still hasn’t completely gotten over.
Though he knows a 3-year-old of Eskendereya’s caliber may never come around again, that won’t stop Zayat from trying to get back to the Big Dance. On Jan. 22, one of his top chances will make his stakes debut, as Justin Phillip will take his first step along the Derby trail when he faces four rivals in the $100,000 Lecomte (gr. III) at Fair Grounds Races & Slots.
Justin Phillip, who is named for Zayat’s son, enters off an impressive wire-to-wire optional claiming win on the Fair Grounds slop New Year’s Day. He handily defeated another Lecomte entrant, Wilkinson, by 3 1/4 lengths despite being green, and will now begin a prep schedule that Zayat hopes will end at Churchill Downs in May. He is the favorite for the one mile and 40-yard test for sophomores.
Steve Asmussen trains the son of First Samurai—Ava Knowsthecode, by Cryptoclearance. He was a $400,000 Keeneland September 2009 yearling sale buy.
“He showed us a lot from the very start,” said Zayat, who had two Derby starters in 2008 and sent out Pioneerof the Nile to run second the following year. “He was the No. 1 pick for Steve. I basically gave him his pick of our best yearlings and this is the one he chose. He’s very talented and does things easily. He’s a little immature still as you could tell from his last race, but hopefully that will get better as he gets older.
“We put blinkers on him for his last work (four furlongs in :49 2/5 Jan. 17) and he went much better. He’ll wear them on Saturday. He’s a push-button horse. He’ll do anything—sit or come from behind.”
Shaun Bridgmohan will be in the saddle once again for the Lecomte.
Zayat, whose other top 3-year-olds include grade I winner Jaycito, impressive Gulfstream Park allowance winner Black N Beauty, and the stakes-placed Sinai, said he will likely nominate nine horses to the Triple Crown races.
“I’d be lying if I said I was over (the Eskendereya injury),” said Zayat, the fourth leading owner by earnings in 2010. “I think I’ll always be saying ‘what if’ with him. But this is my fifth year in the business and I’ve been blessed with some very special horses. We have some good ones again this year.”
Wilkinson was third to Justin Phillip in the one-mile and 70-yard allowance race, as he tracked the winner from a wide position throughout but was no match under Robby Albarado. The Neil Howard trainee broke his maiden at Fair Grounds in December and will also make his stakes debut. Garrett Gomez is in from California to ride the son of Lemon Drop Kid.
Action Ready comes into the Lecomte off of a one-mile optional claiming victory on the Fair Grounds turf Jan. 9 for trainer Bret Calhoun. That was his debut on turf after three starts on dirt, one of which included a maiden special weight win at Remington Park last fall. The More Than Ready colt also likes to show early speed and will likely be part of the pace under Anna Napravnik.
The only horse with stakes experience is New York shipper Pants On Fire, who finished third in the Count Fleet Jan. 1 at Aqueduct. Kelly Breen ships the son of Jump Start in for his sixth lifetime start and has assigned Joe Bravo to ride. He broke his maiden by seven lengths last October on the Delaware Park slop in his third try.
Completing the field is local challenger Mobeetie, a maiden claiming winner in his debut on Jan. 1.
The Lecomte will be followed by the $300,000 Risen Star (gr. II) for 3-year-olds going 1 1/16 miles on Feb. 19 and the $1 million Louisiana Derby (gr. II) on March 26.
Also on the Fair Grounds card Saturday is the $100,000 Silverbulletday for 3-year-old fillies. The high weights in the ungraded stakes are Delta Downs Princess (gr. III) winner Bouquet Booth and Seans Silverdance, who scored in the Debutante Stakes at Hawthorne in December to remain unbeaten in two starts. Both fillies will carry 122 pounds.
The Silverbulletday drew a field of eight and will precede the Colonel E. R. Bradley (gr. IIIT) for older horses on turf.
$100,000 Lecomte Stakes (gr. III, Race 10, 4:46 p.m.), 3YO, 1 Mile, 40 Yards (Dirt) PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer 1. Wilkinson (KY), G K Gomez, 116, N J Howard
2. Action Ready (KY), A R Napravnik, 118, W B Calhoun
3. Mobeetie (KY), J M Campbell, 116, E L Heitzmann
4. Justin Phillip (KY), S Bridgmohan, 118, S M Asmussen
5. Pants On Fire (KY), J Bravo, 116, K J Breen