NEW ORLEANS — So what if his String King’s two recent victories on the turf at Fair Grounds Race Course were against solely Louisiana-bred horses?
So what if that certainly won’t be the case Saturday, when King competes in the $125,000, Grade III Col. E.R. Bradley Handicap with all out-of-state mounts?
And so what if King is entering the Bradley Handicap at only 10-1 odds? And so what if his original jockey had to back out, leaving owner-trainer-breeder Charlie Smith scrambling for a replacement rider (and in the process setting up a remarkable father-son jockey showdown)?
Untested? Also ran? Smith scoffs at the idea. According to him, his mount can run away with the Bradley as long as the 5-year-old competes at peak ability.
“I’m confident in this horse,” Smith said Thursday from his Haughton, La., base. “He’s a notch up better than most horses. If he runs his race, (the other horses) better not stub their toe. They’re going to be in it tough, I’ll say that.”
The favorite for the Bradley Handicap — which was postponed from Jan. 19 to Saturdday to allow the Fair Grounds’ turf track dry out after a long stretch of rain — is 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred Optimizer, owned by Brad Kelley and trained by D. Wayne Lukas.
Optimizer, at 7-2 odds, will be jockeyed Saturday by Jon Court, who is shipping into New Orleans specifically to ride the horse for Kelley and Lukas. It could end up a carbon copy of last Saturday’s $200,000 Lecomte Stakes, a Fair Grounds dirt race also won by a Kelley-Lukas-Court mount, Oxbow.
Not so fast, Smith said. The String King owner said his horse will be a formidable challenge to Optimizer and will prove that he’s the best mount in the Pelican State.
“He’s doing great, couldn’t be better,” a confident Smith said. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s the best horse in the state. He should be voted Horse of the Year in Louisiana.”
And the fact that jockey James Graham backed out of his riding of String King this week doesn’t bother Smith, either. Actually, it could end up with even more drama today — Smith’s new jockey, Jansen Melancon, is the son of Gerard Melancon, who will be riding another horse in the Bradley Stakes, Bim Bam. Gerard Melancon has racked up nearly 4,000 victories in his three-decade career.
But even with Smith’s braggadocio and Optimizer’s favorite status, other mounts could have shots at taking the Bradley as well, including Dubious Miss, a 9-year-old trained by Paul McGee and owned by David Holloway who will go off at 6-1 with Mark Guidry aboard.
“Dubious Miss always runs good on the turf at the Fair Grounds,” McGee said. “It’ll be just his third race after a layoff, and he’s in peak form. All I can do is worry about my horses. I can’t worry about any other horses.”
In addition to Dubious Miss, McGee will also field 4-year-old Tetradrachm in the Bradley Handicap.
Saturday’s Fair Grounds slate includes another turf stakes, the $75,000 Marie Krantz Memorial Handicap, which was postponed from last week because of the soggy course. In that contest, the Andy McKeever-trained and James M. Miller-owned Daisy Devine, at 2-5 odds, is the overwhelming favorite to take the race for fillies and mares.
Whether the turf will be back in full shape by today will be a big question. McGee noted that the Fair Grounds staged one turf race Thursday but shifted the other grass contests scheduled for that day to the dirt because the course was still a bit water-logged.
Fair Grounds officials scheduled a helicopter to fly low over the turf Friday in an effort to further dry out the grass, but that event was canceled.
But with clear skies forecasted, McGee believes the turf track will be ready for the Bradley and Krantz stakes.
“It’s still damp now,” he said Thursday, “but I think it will be pretty good by Saturday.”