The $500,000 New Orleans Handicap (gr. II) is shaping up just like the Feb. 9 Mineshaft Handicap (gr. III) did, and that’s fine as far as Neil Howard is concerned. The trainer sends 4-year-old Grasshopper to the March 8 event looking for the same form the colt showed in his Mineshaft victory – and Howard fully expects similar results.
Familiar faces from the Mineshaft will appear in the New Orleans Handicap as runner-up Silver Lord and third-place finisher Magna Graduate return to the track, as does fifth-place finisher Encaustic. Adding intrigue to the field are Michael and Doreen Tabor’s Circular Quay and the 7-year-old gelding Brass Hat.
Grasshopper won the Mineshaft by a satisfying 2 ½ lengths in his seasonal debut, going 1 1/16 miles at Fair Grounds. That victory affirmed Howard’s decision to give the colt a breather last year after consecutive second-place finishes in the Travers Stakes (gr. I) and Super Derby (gr. II) to Street Sense and Going Ballistic, respectively.
“We had watched him very close and he was doing well, but it was obvious that the Travers might have taken a little more out of him than we thought,” Howard said. “We looked at what was left of the season and what we’d like to accomplish with him overall, and we’ve always thought physically he’d do better as a 4-year-old, so we gave him a little busman’s holiday – kept him in light training and turned him out in the round pen every day.”
Now the son of Dixie Union, bred in Kentucky out of the Mr. Prospector mare Grass Skirt by owners Will Farish, E.J. Hudson, and the estate of James Elkins, will stretch back out to 1 1/8 miles. It is a distance he favored last summer, when he took a $70,000 allowance event at Saratoga by six lengths before his game run in the Travers. Never off the board in eight starts, he holds a record of 4-3-1 with earnings of $508,532.
“When you’re around them every day you have to draw some conclusions, and this horse as an older horse is something we’ve always felt strongly about,” Howard said. “I feel very good about him at this point – I’m always cautious, which you have to be with a long season ahead – but we’re very pleased with the way he’s been training along within himself, very beautifully.”
The colt last worked March 3 at Fair Grounds, covering five furlongs in 1:01.40. He is the 2-1 morning-line favorite.
Fred Bradley’s Brass Hat breezed four furlongs in :48.40 at Fair Grounds March 4 and had trainer William “Buff” Bradley feeling optimistic after the gelding’s fourth-place effort in the Feb. 2 Donn Handicap (gr. I) at Gulfstream Park. Brass Hat, a Kentucky homebred by Prized out of the Dixie Brass mare Brassy, won the 2006 New Orleans Handicap when it was run at Harrah’s Louisiana Downs in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“It would be nice to win this race again in New Orleans,” Bradley said. “This track at Fair Grounds is the kind of track horses can get a hold of. He thrives on a track like this.”
Trainers Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen complete the field with five starters between them. Pletcher will be seeking better form from both of his runners, Elisabeth Alexander’s Magna Graduate and 4-year-old Circular Quay, while Asmussen has solid contenders in Silver Lord, Reporting for Duty, and Encaustic.
Magna Graduate, a 6-year-old son of Honor Grades, has not won a race since taking the 1 1/8-mile Excelsior Breeders’ Cup Handicap (gr. III) at Aqueduct last April, but was in against last year’s toughest company and scored runner-up efforts behind Flashy Bull in the Stephen Foster (gr. I) and Diamond Stripes in the Medowlands Cup Handicap (gr. II). Bred in Kentucky by Nicole Zitani and Ramon Rangel, he is out of the Fast Playmare Peacock Alley. Prepping for this effort, he worked five furlongs at Palm Beach Downs in 1:03.60 March 2.
Circular Quay, winner of the 2007 Louisiana Derby, finished fifth last time out in the Feb. 16 San Carlos Handicap (gr. II) on the Cushion Track at Santa Anita. The Kentucky homebred, by Thunder Gulchout of the Belong to Me mare Circle of Life, looks to improve on a 3-year-old season that included a sixth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and a fifth-place finish in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I). His prep for the New Orleans Handicap was a March 2 work at Hollywood Park, where he went five furlongs in 1:00 flat. He is the 7-2 second choice on the morning line.
Silver Lord’s effort in the Mineshaft, while not a winning one, was nevertheless satisfactory. The 5-year-old son of Unbridled’s Song, bred in Kentucky by Pollock Farms and Taylor Made Farm out of the Miswaki mare Whatamiss, did not race until his 4-year-old season and has been a solid contender since breaking his maiden at Churchill Downs Nov. 18 of last year. Moving gradually up the ladder for Bowman Couch Racing, he came into the Mineshaft off a Louisiana Handicap win and actually claimed the lead at the head of the stretch after racing three-wide, but was no match for Grasshopper.
Reporting for Duty comes off back-to-back victories in Sam Houston’s Maxxam Gold Cup Handicap and the Zia Park Derby. The Deputy Commandercolt, bred in Kentucky by the McMillin Brothers and James Devaney out of the Distant View mare Expanse, is seeking his first graded stakes win for Bob and Cathy Zollars.
Encaustic, a 4-year-old son of Broad Brush bred in Maryland by Fitzhugh out of the Stop the Music mare Illeria, seeks his first graded win for Millennium Farms.
$500,000 New Orleans Handicap (gr. II, race 6, approximate post 3:06 p.m.), 1 1/8 miles, older horses, dirt PP, Horse, Age, Weight, Jockey
1. Encaustic, 4, 112 Julien Leparoux
2. Silver Lord, 5, 115, Corey Lanerie
3. Grasshopper, 4, 119, Robby Albarado
4. Circular Quay, 4, 116, Garrett Gomez
5. Brass Hat, 7, 117, Willie Martinez
6. Reporting for Duty, 4, 115, Shaun Bridgmohan
7. Magna Graduate, 6, 117, Edgar Prado