La. Derby field comes into shape

NEW ORLEANS — With just two weeks until the 100th running of the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds Race Course, the field for the $1 million meet finale is starting to coalesce.

With upstart Ive Struck a Nerve, who parlayed 135-1 odds to a stunning victory in the Feb. 23 Risen Star Stakes, out for at least six months with a broken ankle, chances are the winner of the Louisiana Derby will be one that’s shipped in from an outside stable.

That leaves the March 30 contest — and the guaranteed spot in the May 4 Kentucky Derby that comes with a victory in it — wide open and, as always, a major factor in who makes it to the starting gate at Churchill Downs.

“It’s quite significant, especially the Risen Star and, even more so, the Louisiana Derby,” Daily Racing Form beat writer Marty McGee said of the Fair Grounds. “Very big, serious candidates (for May 4) come from the Fair Grounds.”

This year, the selection process for the Kentucky Derby (as well as for the corresponding Kentucky Oaks for fillies) underwent a major makeover, with qualification now dependent on a points system fed by the results of 36 major stakes races for 3-year-old thoroughbreds leading up to May 3 (for the Oaks) and May 4 (for the Derby) across the country.

Under the new system, the top 20 points leaders can earn a spot at Churchill Downs. Up until his injury last Sunday nixed his season, Ive Struck a Nerve led the points rankings thanks to his Risen Star win.

National racing pundits generally don’t consider Nerve’s exit from the running that much of a loss.

“I don’t think his absence will have an impact at all,” McGee said. “He had the kind of odds that had people thinking he was a fluke.”

Nerve’s trainer, Keith Desormeaux, and his owners had planned to run him in the March 30 Louisiana Derby, in which 100 points will be allotted to the winner, 40 for second, 20 for third and 10 for fourth.

But now that Nerve is out — and now that, on Friday, Fair Grounds officials released a list of 14 Louisiana Derby probables — the highest-ranking likely entrant is the Bob Baffert-trained Code West, with 20 points.

Several mounts follow with 10, including Palace Malice (trained by Todd Pletcher), Revolutionary (Pletcher) and Tiz a Minister (Paul Aguirre).

None of those trainers have stalls at the Fair Grounds, and Pletcher, who has two favorites in the March 30 contest, couldn’t be reached for comment. However, a handful of New Orleans-based trainers also have likely entrants in the Louisiana Derby.

One of those is Tom Amoss, whose Mylute will come into March 30 with two Road to the Kentucky Derby points. Amoss said this week that the future of Mylute, who will be ridden by Shaun Bridgmohan on March 30, will ride on his performance in two weeks. That includes whether the mount will continue to shoot for Churchill.

“We have no plans for him beyond that right now,” Amoss said. “It all depends on how he runs in the Louisiana Derby, and we’re committed to the Louisiana Derby.”

Amoss added that, at this point, he couldn’t pick out any favorites for March 30 because he’s been so focused on his own mount.

“My folks have been concentrating on conditioning the horse and getting him ready, so I haven’t been paying attention to what the field looks like,” he said. “I have no idea how it will look.”

Palace Malice could be pegged as a horse to watch in two weeks, partially because he’ll be piloted by former Kentucky Derby winner and Eclipse Award-garnering jockey Edgar Prado.

But as Ive Struck a Nerve proved, long shots can never be counted out. For example, on Wednesday, Fair Grounds staff writer Graham Ross produced a feature story on Ground Transport, who, with no points heading into the Louisiana Derby, will certainly face long odds March 30. But before the Risen Star, Ross also profiled Ive Struck a Nerve, a development that almost eerily presaged Nerve’s Feb. 23 victory.

Ground Transport’s trainer, Michael Stidham, who keeps 50 stalls in the Fair Grounds barns, remained confident in his horse heading into the Louisiana Derby.

“Obviously, he’s not as accomplished as some of the other horses,” Stidham said. “He hasn’t even won any stakes yet. But we feel he’s got a lot of talent, and he’s developing nicely so far.”

As far as identifying favorites for the Louisiana Derby, Stidham pointed to Pletcher’s Revolutionary, who last won the $200,000 Withers Stakes at Aqueduct in New York Feb. 2. But, Stidham added, “overall, (the Louisiana Derby) is shaping up to be a pretty solid race.”

A few of the probables for March 30 aren’t entered into the Triple Crown points series, meaning their participation in the contest in two weeks comes down to simply winning a huge chunk of the $1 million purse for their teams.

That list includes two mounts conditioned by local trainer Al Stall Jr., who will likely enter Sunbean and Departing in the centennial running of the Louisiana Derby. Both horses, despite not shooting for the Triple Crown contests, have found success regardless — Departing is undefeated, while the Louisiana-bred Sunbean has won two stakes during the Fair Ground’s current meet.

“We’re excited about our horses, and we’re confident in them,” said Stall, who also likes Revolutionary’s chances on March 30. “So far they’ve been racing like we wanted them to. We’re crossing our fingers and hoping our horses will do well.”