Our 2019 Kentucky Derby trail begins this Saturday at the Fair Grounds in Louisiana with the G3 $200,000 LeComte Stakes. The LeComte is 1 of 3 derby preps that will be run at the Fair Grounds, culminating with the $1 million Louisiana Derby on March 23rd. The LeComte will be run over 2 turns at a distance of 1 mile and 70 yards. In addition to purse money this race will also award coveted Kentucky Derby points to the top 4 finishers (10-4-2-1).

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The horses we will be looking at early on the derby trail are freshly minted 3yr olds. As a frame of reference, 2yr olds are like high school varsity athletes, 3yr olds are akin to college athletes, and 4yr olds & up are the professionals. When I handicap 3yr olds this early in the season, I am looking for a baseline level of competitive ability, and a reason to believe they will be improving for that race. Young horses that show the ability to overcome troubled trips, successfully change pace tactics, or compete at a high level at multiple tracks and surfaces always catch my eye for a deeper look. This week we have 14 prospects looking to step up towards Derby stardom.

The Fair Grounds strip has been running fairly for these types of races with 27% of winners going wire to wire. There has been an almost even distribution of winners across post positions. With 14 relatively inexperienced combatants going to the gate this week, we are bound to have a few speedballs gunning for the front.

Near the front, I expect to see Malpaise, Mr Money, Tight Ten and Manny Wah. Malpaise, trained by Joe Sharp will be making his first attempt beyond 6.5 furlongs so his sprinter background may see him carried to the lead. The #3, Tackett, looks like he wants to be up front as well, but his early pace figures haven’t shown that he can keep up with the other three.

Fighting for position into the first turn behind this group should be Wicked Indeed, War of Will, Mo Speed, Chase the Ghost and Admire. From the back of the pack will be longshots Night Ops, Hog Creek Hustle, Roiland, and lukewarm 9/2 morning line favorite Plus Que Parfait.

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Trained by Brendan Walsh, Plus Que Parfait changed tactics in the Kentucky Jockey Club by settling back early. This strategy worked brilliantly as a hot pace developed and he was able to overcome a wide trip to just miss by a neck. The same could happen this week but he will need a better position entering the first turn.

The horse I landed on for the win is 6/1 morning line War of Will. This Mark Casse trainee showed me a ton of ability and a ton of heart in his last 2 races of 2018. In the BC Juvenile Turf, he was carried widest of all on the first turn, stayed wide on the backside and through the turn for home, yet still had enough kick to keep grinding and finish 5th, beaten only 3.5 lengths. 3 weeks later he switched to a sloppy dirt surface and easily broke his maiden while posting a career best speed figure. While the class drop from the G1 BC Juvenile Turf to a maiden special is immense, I cannot ignore the speed figure improvement in his first dirt try. Overcoming a tough trip, then coming back with a vengeance on a different surface are the exact type of signals I look for from a young colt.

Let’s start the year with War of Will for the win.