Just as in the Sham Stakes last Saturday, the Grade III Lecomte Stakes will feature a field of only five 3-year-olds vying to earn their first graded stakes win in the hopes of moving on toward the big dance in May. And just as in the Sham, an Asmussen trainee stands in center stage with hopes of taking home the big prize. With Tapizar now a graded stakes winner in California, the top trainer looks to Justin Phillip to head his string of 3-year-olds in Louisiana. If Justin Phillip can step up in the Lecomte, Asmussen will be trekking toward the bluegrass state with a double-barreled shotgun to try to finally clench the prize that has thus far eluded him—a win in the Kentucky Derby.
The first time I saw Justin Phillip was in the paddock at Saratoga on Whitney Day. This colt was a stand-out in a field of maiden 2-year-olds; his hide shone like a new penny in the summer sun, and he carried his bobbed head high to match the posture of his jockey, Garrett Gomez. With the rest of the field saddled by Hall of Fame trainers, this maiden special weight looked more like a stakes race or a parade of future superstars. This is one of those magical scenes at Saratoga: brand-new race horses parading in the shaded paddock, none of them knowing the sting of loss, surrounded by people swelled with the hopes that their horse will be the next Kentucky Derby winner. But when the babies left the paddock and began to parade in front of the grandstands for the first time, the picture-perfect image was dashed for one group of connections when the favored Justin Phillip dumped Gomez and took off toward the stables like a storm of devils were after him. Miraculously, neither the colt nor anyone else was hurt, as he ran the wrong way up the stretch during the parade and eventually leapt the rail on the backstretch to the gasp of a few thousand people watching in the grandstands. After witnessing the 2-year-old’s random act of delinquency, I came to two conclusions about Justin Philip: 1. He was going to be a handful for his connections. 2. He was extremely fast. And though he didn’t shine on me in the same way as his stablemate Tapizar later would, he had the look of a horse to remember.
Justin lived up to this summation. In his most recent start, a 1-mile and 70 yards allowance race at Fair Grounds on New Year’s Day, the rodeo show continued with positive results. He managed to keep his jockey, Shaun Bridgmohan, on him this time and broke well at the start, taking the lead into the first turn. Justin Phillip continued to lead the way all the way around the sloppy track, and began to open up on the rest of the field when he suddenly veered out into the middle of the stretch; the move looked as if it would cost him the race, as all of his momentum was now sending him sideways instead of forward, but then the colt started lugging in, and he ended up drawing away by 3 1/4 lengths to win his second race. Justin Phillips was living up to his entertaining reputation, but at least this time, it didn’t spoil his chances of finding the winner’s circle.
As the Grade III Lecomte is 1-mile and 40 yards, Justin Phillip will be cutting back in distance when he enters his first stakes race; he will be wearing blinkers for the first time to try to focus him a bit more in the stretch. His four rivals include Wilkinson, who ran third to him in his rollercoaster win at Fair Grounds, Action Ready, Mobeetie, and New York-invader Pants on Fire. Of these, Pants on Fire is the only other starter with a previous try in a stakes race; last time out, Pants on Fire finished third to Monzon in the Count Fleet at Aqueduct. Action Ready is the co-high-weight at 118 pounds with Justin Phillip, as these are the only two starters entering the Lecomte with two wins; Action Ready has also won going two turns. Mobeetie is definitely the underdog in this race, with only one lifetime career start, at 6 furlongs; though he was much the best after a troublesome trip in that race, going against this field will be a huge test, and he would have to step up big time to pose a threat to these more seasoned competitors.
The Grade III Lecomte Stakes kicks off Louisiana’s road to the Kentucky Derby, with the Grade II Risen Star next before the Grade II Louisiana Derby on March 26th. Next weekend will mark another early prep race for 3-year-olds with the Grade III Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream.
Is anybody else out there getting a craving for spring?
The Grade III Lecomte Stakes will air live this Saturday on HRTV. Post time is set for approximately 5:46 ET.
For frees PPs of the Lecomte entries, check out this PDF from Equibase.com.