Track Reports

Fair Grounds Barn Notes: Airoforce Has Casse Confident for Risen Star

By all accounts, John C. Oxley’s Airoforce has done little wrong in his career. A smashing winner on debut going six furlongs on the grass at Kentucky Downs in a sharp 1:10.34, the son of Colonel John was equally as dominant when winning the Grade III $250,000 Bourbon Stakes next out at Keeneland in his two-turn debut. The flashy colt was then nailed on the wire in a neck loss in the Grade I $1,000,000 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf 26 days later on Oct. 30 and then was a clear victor in his main track debut when taking the Grade II $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs in late November over a sloppy and sealed surface.

Going into next Saturday’s Grade II $400,000 Veterans Ford Risen Star Stakes, Airoforce looms as the deserving favorite in the 1 1/16-miles event. The Mark Casse trainee will try to kick off his sophomore season and Triple Crown trail successfully as he aims toward a return to Churchill Downs and the Grade I $2,000,000 Kentucky Derby on May 7.

“He’s doing tremendously,” Casse said. “I think he’s progressed (from 2- to 3-years-old) and done well. He got a lot of racing in his 2-year-old year and his last race has turned out to be a pretty good race on form. He’s a neck away from being undefeated and we’re happy with him.

“We cranked him up in his last work, that’s for sure,” Casse continued. “In his first five eighths work (1:00.20 on Jan. 31), he got a little tired and came out of it a little under the weather. He bounced back quickly and his second work (five furlongs in 59.60 on Feb. 6) was really good. More importantly, he came out of that work on top of his game. We had turned the lights off for a while on him (to freshen him), but now they’re back on.”

While the gray colt has conquered much of what he has been asked to do, one thing he has yet to try is a fast dirt track, which he may encounter on Feb. 20. A winner on firm turf, yielding grass and the aforementioned sloppy course, the talented charge defeated Mor Spirit and Mo Tom in the Kentucky Jockey Club, who have since scored three graded stakes between them. Mo Tom is expected to be the Risen Star’s second choice on the merit of his open-length local victory in the Grade III $200,000 Lecomte Stakes on Jan. 16. Mor Spirit, on the other hand, returned to California to take the Grade I $350,000 Los Alamitos Futurity in December and then kick off his 2016 season with a smart victory in the Grade III $150,000 Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita last weekend.

“You never can tell if they’ll handle the (fast) dirt with works, but he has a dirt pedigree,” Casse said. “The only reason he originally ran on the turf was because the purse of the Kentucky Downs maiden was $120,000. Once he ran so well and broke his maiden it was hard to take him off the grass. After the Breeders’ Cup we wanted to find out how he would handle dirt and even though it was sloppy, you couldn’t ask him to do much more than he did that day. It should have worked to his disadvantage, but he took a lot of slop and still won.

“The timing of the Risen Star was good for him,” Casse continued. “It was too quick to run him in the (Grade III $250,000) Sam Davis (Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 13), so we had options to either go to the Risen Star or run in the (Grade II $400,000) Fountain of Youth (Stakes) at Gulfstream Park (on Feb. 27) and I would rather deal with (Mohaymen) on the first Saturday in May.”

Airoforce will fly in from South Florida on Thursday, Feb. 18, along with fellow Risen Star competitor Uncle Walter, as well as International Star, who is expected to start as the favorite in the Grade III $125,000 Mineshaft Handicap. Both Uncle Walter – third in the Lecomte – and International Star are owned by Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey and trained by Mike Maker. 

Speedway Stable’s Leigh Court came out of her sharp victory in Tuesday’s $60,000 Mardi Gras Stakes in good shape, according to leading trainer Mike Stidham. The 2013 champion 3-year-old filly of Canada made her 6-year-old bow a successful one with a front-running victory in the 5½-furlong turf sprint event, earning her eighth career victory and sixth in stakes company of her 16-race career. The win was her first since being purchased for $1 million at auction in Nov. 2014 and in four subsequent starts for the Stidham barn.

“She came out of it in good shape and looks good,” Stidham said. “Our goal is to have her fresh and healthy going into the spring and summer because once we get out of here and up to Keeneland there are races for her there. This summer, we’ll take her with our string to Arlington. She seems to prefer the synthetic and turf, so we’ll look at races on those surfaces. Woodbine and Arlington have a few races and as a long-range goal we’re looking at races like the (Grade I $700,000) Just a Game (Stakes) at Belmont (Park). It’s a one-turn mile on the grass and that – though a tough spot – might suit her as far as distance and surface.”

The daughter of Grand Slam has raced in Grade I company prior and did not disgrace herself. In Oct. 2013, the dark bay charge was fourth – beaten 1¼ lengths in the final jumps – in the Grade I $400,000 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup going nine furlongs on the Keeneland turf. Though that trip was slightly out of her range, she has proven to be versatile, winning stakes from Tuesday’s turf dash trip to 1 1/16 miles on the synthetic Polytrack and six furlongs on the dirt.

“The number one goal is to get her over a million dollars in earnings,” Stidham continued. “John Adger, who was the manager for Stonerside and did an amazing job for them, got Peter Fluor and K. C. Weiner in the business and is very careful which horses he buys. His first two purchases for them were Leigh Court for a million (dollars) and Hard Not to Like for $1.5 million and (Hard Not to Like) earned $700,000, won a Grade I and then was sold for $2.4 million – so that was a home run. We were a little unlucky with Leigh Court running second last year in a couple tough races, but she needed her freshening and looked good coming back. These owners are going to be involved at the top level and are great for the sport, so it’s very exciting for us to be involved and we’re thankful for the opportunity.”

Grade II $200,000 Falls City Handicap winner last out winner Ahh Chocolate returned to the work tab for trainer Neil Howard after a brief freshening last week with a three-furlong move in 37.40 and returned again Wednesday afternoon to go a half-mile in 48.80. The Stoneway Farm homebred daughter of Candy Ride is aiming toward a spring campaign.

Grade I-winning distance specialist Majestic Harbor worked five furlongs in 1:02.20 for trainer Paul McGee ahead of a start in the Grade III $125,000 Mineshaft Handicap on Feb. 20.

Top-rated local sprinter Clearly Now worked an easy half-mile in 52.60 for trainer Ron Faucheux and owner Brittlyn Stable ahead of a planned start in the $60,000 Duncan F. Kenner Stakes on Feb. 20.

Mark Breen’s Grade III winner Jessica’s Star worked five furlongs in 59.80 for trainer Mike Stidham on Thursday.

Undefeated three-time stakes-winning Louisiana-bred Mr. L. S. Shoe – off since winning the $125,000 Louisiana Premier Night Prince on Feb. 7, 2015 – worked a strong six furlongs in 1:12.60 for Sweet Hodges and owner Phyllis Hodges. The move followed a bullet five furlongs on Jan. 30 in 1:00.60.

William Deckwa, Jr.’s multiple stakes-winning sprinter Too Dim worked five furlongs in 1:00.20 for rainer Eddie Johnston in advance of next weekend’s $60,000 Duncan F. Kenner Stakes.

Brittlyn Stable’s stakes-winning sophomore filly Above Fashion, winner of the $50,000 Letellier Memorial two back for trainer Ron Faucheux, worked a half-mile in an easy 54.20 on Thursday.

Stakes-winning turf sprinter El Seventyseven continued his comeback with another swift breeze in 48 flat for four furlongs on Wednesday morning for trainer Hugh Robertson and owner Novogratz Racing.

Brittlyn Stable’s local allowance winner Tough Customer worked a handy five furlongs in 1:01.40 for trainer Ron Faucheux on Thursday.

William S. Farish’s homebred Speightstown sophomore filly Banner Waving, a good third last out to highly regarded Royal Obsession in allowance company, worked a half-mile in 49.60 on Wednesday for trainer Neil Howard.

Well-regard Dallas Stewart trainee Spikes Shirl worked a sharp half-mile in 48.60 on Wednesay for owner Charles Fipke. The sophomore son of Speightstown exits a tough-luck second to Tiznoble in allowance company on Dec. 28.

Source: Fair Grounds Race Course

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