A year ago, it would have been the kind of day that filled trainer Brad Cox with rosy feelings about the first weekend in May.
He won the $400,000 Twinspires.com Fair Grounds Oaks, a Longines Kentucky Oaks qualifying race, with Juddmonte Farms’ Bonny South. Then, in the very next race on March 21 at Fair Grounds, he captured the $1 million Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby, a Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve points race, with Wells Bayou.
Under normal conditions, he would have been celebrating the prospect of starting his first horse in the famed run for the roses, but in a world struggling to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, the abnormal has become the new normal.
ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY LEADERBOARD
Instead of its original May 2 date, the Kentucky Derby will be contested Sept. 5 and the path to Churchill Downs on that afternoon has become what Cox categorized as “uncharted territory” for him and everyone else.
“I think it’s more difficult now because there’s so much uncertainty and time, though you’re probably better off asking someone like Bob Baffert [a 15-time Triple Crown winner] about getting there than me,” Cox said. “There’s a lot of options but the ultimate goal will be trying to get there and we’ll just have to work backwards from September.”
With the status of the other two legs of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, in question, it turned the Louisiana Derby from a rich prep race for 3-year-olds into a $1 million moment to savor during difficult times.
“One of the owners told me after the race, ‘Let’s enjoy this one. Who knows when we’ll be racing again?’ ” Cox said.
The Louisiana Derby brought down the curtain on the 2019-’20 Fair Grounds meet, which was supposed to run through March 29 but was halted a week early Saturday due to the spread of the virus.
It ended on a high note for Cox and the ownership group of Clint Gasaway, Lance Gasaway, Madaket Stables, and Wonder Stables as Wells Bayou recorded his first graded stakes win at a highly opportune time.
After setting the pace in Oaklawn Park’s Feb. 17 Southwest Stakes and finishing second by a length to Silver Prospector at 1 1/16 miles, Wells Bayou handled the extended 1 3/16-mile distance of Saturday’s race with aplomb.
In past years, the Louisiana Derby was contested at a 1 1/8-mile distance, but the extra sixteenth of a mile posed no problem for the son of Lookin At Lucky. Despite being bumped at the start, he led at every call and, with no one mounting a charge from the rear of the 14-horse field, he crossed the finish line 1 ½ lengths ahead of Ny Traffic, who was second throughout.
“He’s always given us the opinion that he wants more distance, which is why we chose this race as opposed to the [1 1/16-mile] Rebel [last week at Oaklawn],” said Cox, who enjoyed a stakes hat trick Saturday by winning the Muniz Memorial Classic with Factor This. “There also figured to be less speed here.”
Speed was surely the name of the game in the Rebel Stakes as Nadal went gate-to-wire for Baffert and it held up in the Louisiana Derby as well. Wells Bayou ($8.20) carved out fractions of :48 and 1:12.42 while completing the 1 3/16 miles in 1:56.47 as the 3-1 favorite under Florent Geroux.
In making his second start in a stakes, Wells Bayou was victorious for the third time in five career starts and lifted his earnings to $845,293.
Though they will not come in handy for more than five months, Wells Bayou received 100 qualifying points which assures him of a spot in the Kentucky Derby.
Ny Traffic received 40 points for his runner-up finish. The son of Cross Traffic was coming off a fifth-place finish in the second division of the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford earlier at the meet. He was 2 ¾ lengths ahead of Modernist, who had captured the second division of the Feb. 15 Risen Star for trainer Bill Mott from the rail but settled for third while burdened with post 14 Saturday. He took home 20 points, while Major Fed picked up 10 for finishing a half-length back in fourth.