Wilkinson used a rail-skimming ride from Garrett Gomez to register a mild upset in the $100,000 Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) as Fair Grounds' road to the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) got underway Jan. 22 (VIDEO).
Owned by his breeder, Gaillardia Racing, and trained by veteran conditioner Neil Howard, Wilkinson rebounded from a 3 1/4-length loss to even-money Lecomte favorite Justin Phillip to score his first win against winners by a head over Pants On Fire.
Justin Phillip, well-spotted on the outside of pacesetting Pants On Fire on the far turn, faded to finish last in the field of five 3-year-olds.
Wilkinson, stalking at the rail for Gomez at odds of 3-1, was always in contention while racing third or fourth, but needed to make up about a length on the stubborn Pants On Fire in the final furlong after moving into second near the quarter pole. Under strong encouragement through the lane, the son of Lemon Drop Kid kept plugging at the rail. The little dynamo got up impressively in the final couple of strides while completing the one mile and forty yards in 1:40.97 over a fast track.
“He’s still learning how to run but he pays attention,” said Gomez. “Neil just told me to have confidence in this horse so I did.”
The final time was slightly faster than Bouquet Booth ran in winning the Silverbulletday Stakes for 3-year-old fillies in 1:41.24 two races earlier.
Second choice Pants On Fire, with Joe Bravo aboard, was a clear second by five lengths while carving so-so quarter-mile fractions of :24.82, :48.94, and 1:13.67. Action Ready, ridden by Rosie Napravnik, finished third, followed by Mobeetie and Justin Phillip.
The Lecomte will be followed in the 3-year-old series at Fair Grounds by the $300,000 Risen Star (gr. II) going 1 1/16 miles Feb. 19 and the $1 million Louisiana Derby March 26.
“I think all of us with these 3-year-olds are thinking about those races,” said Howard in the winner’s circle when asked about the rest of the local series. “If the colt keeps doing well I am sure we would like to (go on to the Louisiana Derby). I’d say we are pointing to it but I will talk to Mr. Gaylord (owner of Gaillardia Racing) and we’ll figure out what we want to do.”
Wilkinson, never worse than third in his five starts, began his career last fall in Kentucky. He posted runner-up finishes against maiden company going seven furlongs at Keeneland Oct. 21 and at 1 1/16 miles at Churchill Downs more than three weeks later. His maiden win came at Fair Grounds at the Lemonte distance as the favorite by one length.
In his first try against winners, also at Fair Grounds, Wilkinson closed well while racing wide to finish third behind Justin Phillip in an optional claiming allowance event Jan. 1. The currently-injured Robby Albarado rode Wilkinson in all of his earlier starts.
Wilkinson earned $60,000 for the victory and boosted his career bankroll to $105,490. The dark bay or brown Kentucky-bred colt is out of Tasha's Delight, by Afternoon Deelites.
Sent off as the third choice, Wilkinson carried 116 pounds and paid $8, $3.40, and $4.60 while topping a $20.60 exacta. Pants On Fire, third in Aqueduct's Count Fleet Stakes Jan. 1 for trainer Kelly Breen, returned $3.20 and $4.80. Action Ready paid $6.20 to show.
“Honestly, I take my hat off to (Wilkinson),” said Bravo after riding the runner-up. “That was a lot of effort. My horse was there and he ran hard. It was a great horse race.”