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Aaron previews the 2023 Lecomte Stakes (G3) from Fair Grounds, then gives his top picks & long shots from this 2023 Kentucky Derby (G1) prep race. Trainer Brad Cox appears to hold a strong hand as his barn pursues its 1st victory in this historic race, but did Aaron take either Instant Coffee or Tapit’s Conquest to win? Tell us YOUR thoughts in the Comments section!
Gold Square LLC’s Instant Coffee, currently in fifth on the Road to the Kentucky Derby with 12 points, headlines a field of eight 3-year-olds for the 79th running of the $200,000 Lecomte Stakes (G3), the finale of 14 races carded on Saturday’s “Road to the Derby Day” at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots. Run over 1 1/16 miles, the Lecomte is the first in the next stage of prep races which offer 20 Kentucky Derby points to the winner, with the rest of the top five earning 8-6-4-2. Three other Lecomte runners have already banked points – Denington (4), Echo Again (3), and Confidence Game (1).
Six stakes have been carded by racing secretary Scott Jones and his crew for Saturday, including the Lecomte’s sister race, the $150,000 Silverbulletday. The top five in that 3-year-old filly event will earn Kentucky Oaks qualifying points (20-8-6-4-2). First post is scheduled for noon CT.
Instant Coffee is one of eleven colts from Brad Cox’s barn nominated for the $1,000,000 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby. Cox won three of the four juvenile stakes on Fair Grounds’ Dec. 26 “Road to the Derby Kickoff Day” card, including the Gun Runner with Jace’s Road, the Sugar Bowl with Corona Bolt, and the Letellier with the filly Dazzling Blue.
“Right now we are very fortunate to be in a great position with a lot of these colts,” Cox said. “We are in a good position, but I’m not excited yet. I don’t think you can be, you’ve got to stay grounded and focus on them so you can come up with individual plans for each of them. Then hopefully they can take you where you want to go.”
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In 2022, three colts from the Cox barn earned their way into the “Run for the Roses” starting gate: Zozos, Cyberknife, and Tawny Port. Cox trained the 2021 adjudicated Kentucky Derby winner Mandaloun. In 2018, it was his filly Monomoy Girl who won the Kentucky Oaks.
“Everything we’ve done with this Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks trail (program) started with Monomoy Girl,” Cox said. “She introduced us to that. Getting her to the first Friday in May gave us the confidence to try and have a plan. We try to know each as an individual, bring them along, and hopefully they can keep doing what you ask them, keep taking that next step.”
A sprint winner on debut on September 3 at Saratoga, the Sagamore Farm Kentucky-bred Instant Coffee most recently won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) on Churchill Downs’ “Stars of Tomorrow II” card.
“Going wide in the (Kentucky Jockey Club) I thought he ran a lot more impressively than it looks on paper,” Cox said.
After losing ground through much of the race, Instant Coffee grinded home to get the best of an accomplished field, including Curly Jack, Hayes Strike, fellow Lecomte foe Denington, and next-out winner Cyclone Mischief. Morning line oddsmaker Mike Diliberto marks the graded-stakes winner as the 5-2 morning line favorite.
“He had a good breeze here yesterday,” Cox said of Instant Coffee. “He’s already proven he’ll get the distance. He’s definitely one that keeps coming. We’ll let him break and find his stride, Luis (Saez) knows him well, so we’ll see where he takes us.”
In October’s Breeders’ Futurity (G1), the Bolt d’Oro colt out of the Uncle Mo dam Follow No One settled near the back and finished fourth, seven lengths behind eventual Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Forte, the 10-1 morning line favorite for Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pool #3. Instant Coffee will receive the services of jockey Luis Saez, who has ten mounts on the “Road to the Derby Day” card, and will break from post No. 7.
One of two entered in the Lecomte by trainer Brad Cox, Instant Coffee’s stablemate Tapit’s Conquest is cross-entered in a salty allowance race on the undercard that includes two impressive last-out maiden-winners Banishing, trained by Brendan Walsh, and Tapit Shoes, another star 3-year-old trained by Brad Cox.
“We’ll make a decision later on in the week about whether (Tapit’s Conquest) will go in the stake or the allowance,” Cox said. “I was really happy with his breeze the other day (Jan. 15). We’ll get with the ownership group and come up with a gameplan.”
With two runs under his belt, Tapit’s Conquest broke his maiden at second asking when stretching out for the first time in October at Churchill Downs. Florent Geroux retains the mount, and should Tapit’s Conquest run in the Lecomte, he will break from post No. 5. Neither Cox nor Geroux, who enters this racing week with 1,997 career wins, has ever won the Lecomte.
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Chicago-based trainer Larry Rivelli has had a very successful career (a 25% lifetime winning percentage and $35,057,723 in career earnings), but he has never had a Kentucky Derby runner. Patricia Hope and Phillip Sagan’s Two Phil’s could change that. With three wins in five starts, the son of Hard Spun most recently overcame tough early positioning and a sloppy track to win the Street Sense (G3) at Churchill Downs by 5 1/4 lengths.
“It’s not going to ruin my day if it rains,” Rivelli said. “We won by an eighth of a mile in the slop at Churchill (Street Sense). At this point of the year, this is the best 3-year-old I’ve had. His numbers keep improving with each race, and every work since has been better and better. He’s going to have to move up, but I think he can.”
Jareth Loveberry, Rivelli’s go-to rider during many dominant years in Chicago, gets the call aboard the 4-1 morning line second choice, who drew post No. 8.
“We’d like to break and drop in somewhere,” Rivelli said. “Even if they’re two-tiered and he’s on the outside, I just want him to relax behind horses.”
Two Phil’s finished seventh in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1), nearly four lengths behind Instant Coffee.
“He would have run better in the Breeders’ Futurity if he didn’t have such a bad trip,” Rivelli explained. “Despite the finish, Jareth (jockey Loveberry) told me he liked the horse even more coming out of it. We learned a lot about the horse that day. In the Street Sense, he almost got the same trip. He got banged and bounced around at the break and almost got shut off again. Jareth finally got him to relax, and when he did, he just had a really cool cruising speed. He moved him out, and from the 3/8ths pole to the quarter pole he was just galloping by the other ones when they were already in a drive.”
Sure to impact the pace of the Lecomte is Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Echo Again. The connections behind Epicenter, who won three of Fair Grounds’ four Derby prep races but got nailed at the wire by Call Me Midnight in the Lecomte, have a colt who ran a jaw-dropping field-best 99 Brisnet Speed figure when sprinting on debut. He has not been able to run back to that number going long in September’s Iroquois (G3) at Churchill Downs or in December’s Springboard Mile at Remington Park. By Gun Runner and out of the Tapit mare Teardrop, this keen front-runner is full sibling to 2022 Triple Crown nominee Costa Terra who failed to win going long for the same connections.
Trainer Steve Asmussen calls on Tyler Gaffalione, who enters this racing week with 1,996 wins, to ride Echo Again for the first time. Asmussen has won the Lecomte three times, most recently with Midnight Bourbon in 2021. Gaffalione won the 2019 Lecomte with War of Will. Tabbed at 6-1, Echo Again draws the rail.
2023 Kentucky Derby
Trained by Keith Desormeaux, who upset last year’s Lecomte with 28-1 shot Call Me Midnight, Don’t Tell My Wife Stable’s Confidence Game stepped forward in a big way winning an allowance race on the “Stars of Tomorrow II” undercard at Churchill Downs. OXO Equine’s Itzos, a half brother to the legendary Rachel Alexandra, will be stretching out for the first time after breaking his maiden sprinting across the synthetic at Turfway Park. His undefeated stablemate Bromley will also test two turns for the first time in the Lecomte.
Here’s the complete field for the Lecomte Stakes from the rail out (with jockey, trainer, and morning line):
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