Optimizer faces nine in the Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap.

Optimizer faces nine in the Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap.

Hodges Photography/Lou Hodges, Jr.

Mervin Muniz 'Cap is Optimizer's to Lose

Lukas-trained runner has taken both preps for the March 30 Fair Grounds event.

There's no doubt Optimizer  has been a different horse since Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas moved him to grass—the grass at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots in particular.

The 4-year-old son of English Channel  has handily won two graded stakes, the Feb. 23 Fair Grounds Handicap (gr. IIIT) and the Jan. 26 Col. E.R. Bradley Handicap (gr. IIIT), and streaks into the $400,000 Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap (gr. IIT) against nine others March 30 with a five-for-10 record on the turf.

Optimizer contested all three Triple Crown races last year and was the only horse to do so, but his strength lies in turf routing and he has been on the improve for Lukas in his past two starts. He will ship back from Lukas' Oaklawn Park base and is slated to depart post 5 under a 121-pound highweight including regular rider Jon Court for owner Brad Kelley's Calumet Farm.

At 1 1/8 miles on the lawn, the Mervin H. Muniz Jr. will be run as race 10 of 13 on Fair Grounds' Louisiana Derby (gr. II) Day card with an approximate post time of 6:25 p.m. CDT.  
A main threat to Optimizer is Irish-bred Amira's Prince, who comes off a dominant victory in the $150,000 Mac Diarmida Stakes (gr. IIT) last month at Gulfstream Park for Wachtel Stables, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, and Gary Barber. The 4-year-old Teofilo runner is undefeated in the U.S. with three strong Gulfstream efforts for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. He drew clear with a strong four-wide bid last time out Feb. 16 to defeat Teaks North and Ioya Bigtime going 1 3/8 miles on the turf. Amira's Prince will break from the rail under Junior Alvarado.
WinStar Farm's Doubles Partner will ship in from Florida as well. The 6-year-old son of Rock Hard Ten dead-heated for second with Alley Oop Oop a half a length behind Swift Warrior in the Feb. 16 Tampa Bay Stakes (gr. IIIT) for trainer Todd Pletcher. He seeks his first win since taking the Canadian Turf Stakes (Can-IIIT) last March and departs the 2 hole under Javier Castellano and 117 pounds.
Also running in the Mervin H. Muniz are familiar foes such as Chuck and Ella Lou Hagaman's Bim Bam, who closed three wide at the quarter pole to finish two lengths behind Optimizer in the Fair Grounds Handicap, and Charles Craig Smith's Col. E.R. Bradley runner-up String King, who was 3 1/2 lengths behind Optimizer in that event.
AJ Suited Racing Stable's Hawthorne Derby (gr. IIIT) winner Two Months Rent, third in the Fair Grounds Handicap last out, and Willcox Inn, fourth for Lael Stable and All In Stable, also return for another try.
Joseph Witek's Tiz Sardonic Joe, off a fifth in the Tampa Bay Stakes, Dream Racing Stable's allowance winner Fast Track, and Marlus R. Dall Stella and Joao D. Tikhorniroff's Brazilian-bred Quality Control (making his first U.S. start) complete the field.
$400,000 Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Handicap (gr. II, Race 10, approximate post 6:25 p.m. CDT), 1 1/8 miles (turf)
PP, Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Amira's Prince (IRE), J. Alvarado, 119, W I Mott
2. Doubles Partner (FL), J. Castellano, 117, T A Pletcher
3. Wilcox Inn (KY), J. Graham, 116, M Stidham
4. Fast Track (KY), C.H. Borel, 112, M Conlon
5. Optimizer (KY), J.K. Court, 121, D W Lukas
6. Quality Control (BRZ), L.R. Goncalves, 110, T M Amoss
7. Two Months Rent (KY), E.S. Prado, 114, J J Toner
8. String King (LA), R.E. Eramia, 114, C C Smith
9. Bim Bam (FL), C.S. Nakatani, 115, S M Asmussen
10. Tiz Sardonic Joe (KY), S. Bridgmohan, 114, E Kenneally