Awesome Gem Leads Spirited New Orleans 'Cap

West Point Thoroughbreds’ Awesome Gem, the California-based gelding with recent success as an invader, has been installed as the slight choice at 5-2 in the morning line for the $300,000 New Orleans Handicap (gr. II) March 27 at Fair Grounds. A field of 10 was drawn.

The New Orleans Handicap is run at nine furlongs on the main track and is one of three graded stakes on a Fair Grounds card highlighted by the $750,000 Louisiana Derby (gr. II).
Awesome Gem, trained by Craig Dollase, will be ridden by David Flores who piloted the gelding when he scored in the Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. II) last October. In Awesome Gem’s previous trip away from California, the 7-year-old son of Awesome Again  ran second in the Longacres Mile Handicap (gr. III) at Emerald Downs. In his most recent trip to the post, he was eighth in Santa Anita’s grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile, but beaten less than four lengths when trying the grass. He shoulders the top impost of 121 pounds.
Awesome Gem has earned nearly $1.7 million from 32 starts.
Among the dangerous rivals for Awesome Gem is Tom McCarthy’s General Quarters, second by a neck in the Mineshaft Handicap (gr. III) at Fair Grounds Feb. 20, and second to last year’s Louisiana Derby winner Friesan Fire in the Louisiana Handicap before that Jan. 23. Seven-time Fair Grounds jockey champion Robby Albarado has the riding assignment on General Quarters, who is trained by his owner.
Virginia Tarra’ Giant Oak is the third choice in the New Orleans Handicap at 9-2 on the morning line. Trained by Neil Pessin, the 4-year-old son of Giant's Causeway  finished third in the Mineshaft. James Graham gets the mount on Giant Oak, who will break from the rail.
Other contenders in the race are Brittlyn Stable’s Star Guitar , a Louisiana-bred who has won six straight for trainer Al Stall, and WinStar Farm’s Hold Me Back, the 12th-place finisher in last year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). Hold Me Back, trained by Bill Mott, is winless in his last six starts. His last score came in the Lane’s End Stakes (gr. II) at Turfway Park in March 2009.
Also on the Fair Grounds program is the $300,000 Mervin Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap (gr. IIT) for older horses on the turf course going 1 1/8 miles. Eleven were entered, along with one also-eligible.
Anstu Stables’ Blues Street is the morning-line favorite after winning the Fair Grounds Handicap (gr. IIIT) by 2 1/4 lengths Feb. 20. Trained by Todd Pletcher, the 6-year-old son of Street Cry has produced a record of 7-5-3 from 21 starts while racing up and down the East Coast. He will be ridden by Javier Castellano once again after being aboard for the win four weeks ago. Blues Street shares the top impost of 119 pounds.
Also carrying that weight is James Spence’s El Caballo, who won the local Col. E. R. Bradley Handicap (gr. IIIT) by 3 1/4 lengths Jan. 23, but subsequently passed on the Fair Grounds Handicap. El Caballo, trained by Ralph Nicks, led every step of the way in the 2009 Muniz Memorial before being caught at the wire by Proudinsky, who also won the 2008 Muniz. Robby Albarado is named to handle the reins on El Caballo, the second choice on the morning line.
The third horse carrying 119 pounds is Farnsworth Stables’ Jet Propulsion, who won the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Turf at Gulfstream Park Jan. 30 and then came back to run third—beaten 1 1/2 lengths for the win—in Gulfstream’s Canadian Turf Handicap (gr. IIIT) Feb. 20. Trained by Marty Wolfson, Jet Propulsion will be ridden by Shaun Bridgmohan and is the co-third choice in the morning line at 5-1.

$300,000 New Orleans Handicap (gr. II, Race 8, 3:39 p.m.), 4 & Up, 1 1/8 Miles (Dirt)
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, Odds
1. Giant Oak (IL), J Graham, 119 N L Pessin, 9/2
2. Tone It Down (KY), J Jacinto, 113, S M Asmussen, 20/1
3. Awesome Gem (KY), D R Flores, 121, C Dollase, 5/2
4. Stones River (KY), J Lezcano, 115, M D Wolfson, 15/1
5. Big Polk a Dot (KY), D Cohen, 112, E J Guillot, 20/1
6. Hold Me Back (KY), K J Desormeaux, 116, W I Mott 8/1
7. Star Guitar (LA), C C Bourque, 117, A M Stall Jr., 10/1
8. Stonehouse (IL), M Mena, 117, J E Broussard, 8/1
9. Battle Plan (KY), J Castellano, 117, T A Pletcher, 6/1
10. General Quarters (KY), R Albarado, 120, T R McCarthy, 7/2


$300,000 Mervyn Muniz Jr. Handicap (gr. IIT, Race 9, 4:10 p.m.), 4 & Up, 1 1/8 Miles (Turf)
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, Odds
1. Yate's Black Cat (KY), K J Desormeaux, 117, D L Romans, 6/1
2. Jet Propulsion (FL), S Bridgmohan, 119, M D Wolfson, 5/1
3. My Happiness (ARG), J Theriot, 112, B C Barnett, 30/1
4. El Caballo (KY), R Albarado, 119, R E Nicks, 4/1
5. Pick Six (KY), S J Sellers, 115, E M Oare, 15/1
6. Red Alert Day (GB), D R Flores, 115, N D Drysdale, 8/1
7. Baletti (KY), R Maragh, 114, A J Penna Jr., 8/1
8. Blues Street (KY), J Castellano, 119, T A Pletcher, 3/1
9. Pickapocket (FL), J Graham, 115, M D Wolfson, 12/1
10. Feels All Right (IRE), C S Nakatani, 118, P L Biancone, 8/1
11. Transduction Gold (KY), M Mena, 112, J Glenney, 30/1
Also Eligibles: 
12. Stones River (KY) (MTO), S Bridgmohan, 111, M D Wolfson, 12/1