Louisiana Derby Sets Up as the Epicenter Kentucky Derby Prep

Epicenter-Louisiana Derby

Until the last few years, the Louisiana Derby has never been known as a catapult to the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle. That is, unless you were connected to Black Gold (1924), Grindstone (1996) and Funny Cide (2003). Until 2019, those were the only three Louisiana Derby alums wearing roses the first Saturday in May.

Epicenter-Louisiana DerbyEpicenter pulled away from his rivals here in last month’s Grade 2 Risen Star. He is the 7/5 morning line favorite for Fair Grounds’ signature race: the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby. (Image: Hodges Photography/Amanda Hodges Weir)

But perhaps it now pays to run the Louisiana Derby. Run Fair Grounds’ signature race and perhaps you too can find the winner’s circle – albeit through disqualification. That’s how two of the last three Derby winners: Country House in 2019 and Mandaloun last year, found belated Derby glory.

In Mandaloun’s case, his quite-belated promotion to Derby champion came after he finished a poor sixth in last year’s Louisiana Derby. But there was Louisiana Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie finishing a half-length behind Mandaloun, earning the promotion to second with Medina Spirit’s disqualification.

The 1 3/16-mile Grade 2 Louisiana Derby headlines Fair Grounds’ Saturday card. It is one of the longest Derby preps and features one of the longest stretches of any American track: 449 yards. And it comes with 100-40-20-10 Derby qualifying points going to the top four finishers. That’s enough to get the winner and runner-up into the May 7 Derby.

Epicenter No. 2 in Derby points

This is not a problem for Epicenter, the 7/5 morning line favorite, who comes in with 64 points. Frankly, not much has been a problem for the Steve Asmussen-trained, Not This Time progeny, who is a 7/1 favorite on Circa Sports’ Kentucky Derby future board. He’s gone 2-1-0 in Fair Grounds’ three previous Derby preps. In December, he won the Gun Runner by 6 ½ lengths, pressing pacesetter Surfer Dude until the latter cracked.

A month later in the Grade 3 Lecomte, 8/5 favorite Epicenter set the pace, with 26/1 upstart Surfer Dude in the pressing role over the opening quarter. That Call Me Midnight caught Epicenter by a head just short of the wire didn’t detract from Epicenter’s front-running speed. That front-running speed disposed of Surfer Dude, who finished 31 lengths behind.

In last month’s Grade 2 Risen Star, Epicenter set the pace again, turning aside strong contenders Smile Happy and Zandon for a 2 ¾-length victory.

Call Me Midnight needs early pace for his late finish

Surfer Dude isn’t in the Louisiana Derby field. Nor is there a lot of front-end, pressing speed, which sets up Epicenter for what could be a leisurely trip to the winner’s circle. That doesn’t help Call Me Midnight, a strong closer whose running style sets up well for Fair Grounds’ airplane-runway stretch. The son of Midnight Lute won two of his last three races, with a seventh in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club sandwiched in between.

The latter half of that victory sandwich came in the aforementioned Lecomte Stakes, when he went from eighth to first. When Call Me Midnight caught Epicenter at the wire, he did so at 28.50/1. Now, he comes in with 6/1 morning line odds.

Those are the same odds as Rattle N Roll, the one-time hot Derby prospect who cooled considerably after his sixth-place finish in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park. The Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity champion turned in that clunker after a four-month layoff, so if you think Rattle N Roll is primed for a big run in his second start off the layoff, likely good odds await you.

Grade 2 Louisiana Derby/Fair Grounds

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

Silent Partner, 50/1 (Gerard Melancon/Scott Gelner)
Zozos, 8/1 (Florent Geroux/Brad Cox)
Call Me Midnight, 6/1 (James Graham/Keith Desormeaux)
Curly Tail, 30/1 (Colby Hernandez/Dallas Stewart)
Kupuna, 8/1 (Reylu Gutierrez/Bret Calhoun)
Epicenter, 7/5 (Joel Rosario/Steve Asmussen)
Pioneer of Medina, 5/1 (Tyler Gaffalione/Todd Pletcher)
Galt, 8/1 (Junior Alvarado/Bill Mott)
Rattle N Roll, 6/1 (Brian Hernandez Jr./Kenny McPeek)

Two other candidates bear mention for exotics: Pioneer of Medina (5/1) and Zozos (8/1). Pioneer of Medina had his two-race winning streak and four-race in-the-money streak snapped with a fourth in the Risen Star. In that race, he was no worse than second until the final sixteenth, when both Smile Happy and Zandon outkicked him. That casts doubt on his ability to get 9 ½-furlongs.

Zozos (8/1) makes his stakes debut after destroying an Oaklawn Park allowance optional claimer by 10 ¼ lengths. That came after a half-length maiden-breaking debut Jan. 23 that proved to be a key race. Both runner-up Stay In for Half and third-place finisher Strong Quality won their next races. In both races, Zozos showed a powerful stretch kick that makes him dangerous in this race.

Author: Justin Graves