On the Road to the Triple Crown, early winter qualifying races have arguably not held their weight in recent years, with Barbaro in 2006 being the most recent Kentucky Derby winner to begin his season in a January prep race, when he scored on New Year’s Day in the Tropical Park Derby on grass at the old Calder Race Course.
For a horse with established form as a 2-year-old, the more popular and proven path since then has been to wait until late February or into March to kick off a 3-year-old campaign.
January 2018 looks to be a different, though, as one of the leading Derby candidates, McKinzie, already has a race and impressive victory under his belt last Saturday in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes. The last time the Sham produced a major Derby threat was in 2003 when Empire Maker finished second and went on to capture the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial Stakes and finished second as the favorite in the run for the roses.
This Saturday’s Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds also appears to be a break from the norm, with a full field of 14, a potential budding star in Principe Guilherme dipping his toe into stakes company for the first time, and a West Coast shipper in Instilled Regard, who finished a head behind McKinzie last month in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos CashCall Futurity.
“No use waiting,” said Jerry Hollendorfer, who trains Instilled Regard for Larry Best, a major new player at Thoroughbred sales within the last year. “We thought this is would be a good chance to get him onto the long stretch at Fair Grounds, which should help him. And Mr. Best suggested we try to get Javier Castellano to ride him, and we were able to do that, so we are really looking forward to the race. It does look tough for a Grade 3, no doubt about it.”
Trainer Larry Jones has a trio for the Lecomte, a race he captured in 2007 with Hard Spun, who went on to finish second to Street Sense in the Kentucky Derby, and again in 2009 with Friesan Fire, who swept the prep series at Fair Grounds and then struggled as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby on a wet racetrack. Jones’s inclination, as an admitted member of the old school, is to not pass up a race opportunity, while others might wait for the preps that offer the most qualifying points. Jones has followed the same formula with his three Kentucky Oaks winners.
“I guess these guys are a lot smarter in this game than I am,” Jones said with a laugh. “The old timers, they raced horses, and I’d just as soon race them than have to train them hard to keep them at their best. It worked with Hard Spun, and it worked with Friesan Fire. It’s not like we have won the Derby, but I don’t see a reason to start changing now. Sometimes, we are competitive in there.”
Believe You Can brought home the Oaks lilies for Jones in 2012 and is the dam of his Lecomte runner Believe in Royalty, who will try to bounce back from a sixth-place finish in the Remington Springboard Mile Stakes at Remington Park on Dec. 17. Jones said the regally-bred Tapit colt had a legitimate excuse that day.
“Once we got out there, we kind of knew he wasn’t going to be 100 percent,” Jones said. “He started coughing a little and he had a little mucous, but it looked like it was all in his head; more sinus issues than anything else. We went ahead, knowing he wasn’t probably going to be 100 percent, but also figuring he needed some experience and would need that race to get us to the next one.”
Prince Lucky, a stakes winner last time out at Parx, and Kowboy Karma, the runner-up in the James F. Lewis III Stakes on Nov. 11, are the other Jones runners.
The Lecomte favorite and perhaps most obvious Derby candidate is Principe Guilherme, another Tapit colt, with a Portuguese name that translates to “Prince William.” Rather than the Duke of Cambridge, the name is a nod to the son and also the brother-in-law of breeder and owner Goncalo Torrealba, who operates under the banner of Three Chimneys Farm.
Principe Guilherme has been dominant in his two career starts, debuting with a 6 1/4-length win at Churchill Downs in November and following with an 11 1/4-length romp at Fair Grounds last month over the Lecomte’s trip of a mile and 70 yards. He will have to overcome post-position 12 as the 5-to-2 favorite on Saturday’s morning line.
Three Chimneys also is a co-owner of Horse of the Year candidate Gun Runner, who skipped the Lecomte two years ago after finishing fourth in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes the previous November for trainer Steve Asmussen, who also handles Principe Guilherme. Gun Runner began his season in February with a victory in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes, and he went on to prevail in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby and finish third in the Kentucky Derby.
“With Principe Guilherme, after you win those two conditions, I don’t know what else you do: you might as well start finding out how good your horse is,” said Chris Baker, the chief operating officer of Three Chimneys Farm. “He is there, he likes the track, and he is training well, so have at it.
“In Gun Runner’s case, he started a little earlier as a 2-year-old and the opportunity was there to test him in November in the Kentucky Jockey Club. We gave him a little breather after that, and I think the difference is what is different in the two individuals. Gun Runner was still a little immature, and we thought he would clearly benefit from some extra time. Principe Guilherme didn’t get to the races until later but he is a strong, forward colt, and there really isn’t a reason to not keep on going with him.”