Trained by Todd Pletcher for Starlight Racing, Intense Holiday already has a major victory in his debut at the New Orleans track, taking the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) Feb. 22 by a nose over Albano with a superb stretch move under Mike Smith. The $380,000 son of Harlan's Holiday now advances to the 1 1/8-mile Louisiana Derby, one of the premier prep races for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) May 3 at Churchill Downs.
There are two second favorites listed at 4-1: Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) winner Vicar's in Trouble, starting from the sixth post, and similarly named In Trouble in post 9. In Trouble made his seasonal debut March 1 at Aqueduct Racetrack with a game third-place finish in the Gotham Stakes (gr. III).
Risen Star runner-up Albano, trained by Larry Jones, drew the far outside in post 10 and is listed at 9-2 odds. Rise Up, trained by Tom Amoss, will start from post 8 with blinkers for the first time, opening at 10-1 odds.
Post time for the Louisiana Derby, to be broadcast on NBCSN, is approximately 6:10 p.m. CDT. It is the 11th on a 13-race program that includes the $400,000 Fair Grounds Oaks (gr. II), the $400,000 New Orleans Handicap (gr. II), and the $300,000 Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap (gr. IIT).
The Louisiana Derby is worth 170 points—100 for first, 40 for second, 20 for third and 10 for fourth —in the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series that determines qualifying.
In winning the Risen Star at 5-1 odds, Intense Holiday halted a run of four consecutive defeats in graded stakes following his graduation in a maiden race Aug. 31 at Monmouth Park. The streak included a third behind Besilu Stables Florida Derby (gr. I) favorite Cairo Prince in the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III) to begin his sophomore season Jan. 25 at Gulfstream Park.
Starlight managing partner Jack Wolf thinks that Intense Holiday, out of the Unbridled's Song mare Intensify, will only improve with added distance.
"Well, I think that's what Todd (Pletcher) thinks, and he knows the horse better than I do," said Wolf, noting that the Keeneland September yearling buy was the most expensive horse his ownership group has bought. "So, you know, his last race he seemed to gallop out very well and realize the distance there, and we'll go a sixteenth of a mile further on Saturday so we'll see. But you would think from his pedigree and the way he's handled the two turns so far that he would like the further distances."
Wolf said he believes Intense Holiday had legitimate excuses for his earlier stakes losses and turned the corner with an excellent ride from off the pace from Smith, who was aboard the dark bay colt for the first time in the Risen Star.
"So good for Todd to keep the confidence in the horse and keep putting him in these spots where I think he's experienced a very good foundation and should be ready for this Saturday and hopefully the Saturday five weeks after that," Wolf said.
Brereton C. Jones' homebred Albano gets another crack at the favorite after nearly wiring the field in the Risen Star at odds of 13-1. After breaking from the rail in his last start, he'll have to deal with the outside gate this time, but should have a chance to get a good position in the long run into the first turn.
After winning the Sugar Bowl at Fair Grounds last December, Albano was a distant second to Vicar's in Trouble in the Lecomte to start the year Jan. 18. The son of Istan has back-to-back bullet five-furlong drills over the track coming into the race, including a :59 1/5 move March 24.
"We're real happy the way he's coming along," said trainer Larry Jones, who is hoping for a clean trip. "He is a half-brother, or actually a three-quarter brother to Mark Valeski, so hopefully we've got the genetics to be at this level. But he's training very well. This colt, he seems (to) like the distance of ground, (which) should not be an issue for him at all."
Jones sticks with jockey Kerwin Clark, who has been aboard the bay colt for the past four races.
Ken and Sarah Ramsey's Vicar's in Trouble was favored in the Risen Star from post 13 but did not break with the leaders and was four wide on both turns. He weakened in the final furlong to finish 5 1/2 lengths behind Intense Holiday. It was the Louisiana-bred Into Mischief colt's first loss in three tries at Fair Grounds, where he won the Lecomte by a whopping 6 3/4 lengths.
Rosie Napravnik is in the saddle once again for trainer Mike Maker and the post position (6) should be much more condusive to Vicar's in Trouble's running style.
Team D's In Trouble, winner of the Futurity Stakes (gr. II) at Belmont Park last September, lands in post 9 for trainer Tony Dutrow after showing the way in the Gotham until mid-stretch, when he was edged by unbeaten Samraat and Uncle Sigh. That race, at 1 1/16 miles on the inner track, was In Trouble's first start around two turns and came after a five-month layoff. Joe Rocco Jr. retains the mount on the son of Tiz Wonderful.
Paul and Andrena Van Doren’s Rise Up, winner of the Delta Jackpot (gr. III) last November, weakened to seventh after chasing Albano in the Risen Star when he missed the break and was rank early. Amoss tries blinkers as the Rockport Harbor colt tries to regain the form he demonstrated in stakes wins at Delta Downs and Mountaineer last season. Gerard Melancon will be in the irons once more.
Of those, Winchell Thoroughbreds' $450,000 yearling Gold Hawk, trained by the beleaguered Steve Asmussen, could be the sleeper. The Empire Maker colt out of the champion filly Caressing was third as the favorite in the Lecomte after being difficult to handle at the gate and racing wide. He had more problems with loading prior to the Risen Star and gave way in the stretch after again traveling slightly wide.
WinStar Farm's King Cyrus, runner-up in the Smooth Air Stakes at Calder Casino & Race Course in his seasonal bow for Pletcher March 2, and Springboard Mile winner Louies Flower, last of 12 in the Southwest Stakes (gr. III) Feb. 17, complete the field.
$1 Million Louisiana Derby (gr. II, Race 11, 6:10 p.m.), 3YOs, 1 1/8 Miles PP. Horse, Jockey, Trainer
1. Intense Holiday (KY), M E Smith, T A Pletcher
2. King Cyrus (KY), J Graham, T A Pletcher
3. Louies Flower (FL), M Mena, W B Calhoun
4. Flat Gone (KY), K J Desormeaux, J K Desormeaux
5. Gold Hawk (KY), S Bridgmohan, S M Asmussen
6. Vicar's in Trouble (LA), R Napravnik, M J Maker
7. Commanding Curve (KY), R Albarado, D Stewart
8. Rise Up (KY), G Melancon, T M Amoss
9. In Trouble (KY), J Rocco Jr., A W Dutrow
10. Albano (KY), K D Clark, J L Jones All assigned 122 pounds.
Blinkers On: Rise Up