It is now less than 10 days until Road to the Derby Kickoff Day on January 18 at Fair Grounds, but at this early juncture the Grade 3 Lecomte, showcase race of that gala afternoon, is looking like it may end up as a duel of wills between Albano and Gold Hawk.
That's not to say it will be a two-horse race, but it is to say that those two newly-turned sophomores each have eye-opening races over the local course and both are on schedule for the $200,000 Lecomte at one mile and 70 yards on the third Saturday in January. The Lecomte serves as the first step on the road that will conclude with the 100th renewal of the Grade 2, $1 million Louisiana Derby on March 29.
Albano, trained by Larry Jones, broke his maiden at the Crescent City oval on November 24 and came back to take winning honors on Santa Super Saturday December 21 when he drew off by 1 1/4 lengths in the Sugar Bowl at six furlongs. The Lecomte would be the Istan colt's first effort around two turns.
"He worked Monday (going five furlongs in 1:03 2/5) and we were pleased with that," Jones said Thursday morning during training hours. "He came out fine from that work the other day and we'll work him again this Monday (January 13)."
Gold Hawk broke his maiden at first asking on November 30 at Churchill Downs but was very impressive in his Fair Grounds bow around two turns when he tallied by 3 1/2 lengths on December 27.
"What really impressed me about this horse is the way he was stretching out at the end of that last race," said Ricardo Santana Jr., the jockey aboard Gold Hawk in both his starts. "He really wanted to go longer."
A third three-year-old with a particularly impressive New Orleans debut this season is Unknown Road, but that son of Bernardini who broke his maiden by 11 3/4 lengths on December 19 in the waning days of his juvenile campaign is being preferred for a first-level allowance race in lieu of the Lecomte.
"What's the rush?" said trainer Al Stall Jr. when asked about Unknown Road going in the Lecomte. "There's no point in running him in that spot just yet unless an easier race doesn't fill."
Others with definite designs on the Lecomte include trainer Danny Pish, who plans to send stakes winner and last-out Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf fifth-placer Got Shades as well as stakes-placed Rainbow Trip from his Retama base of operations in central Texas.
"It's hard to find races going two turns on the main track in this part of the country, which is why Got Shades has only run on the grass so far," Pish explained. "But this is a horse who wants to go long. He's had some nice works on the main track out here (most recently five furlongs in :59 3/5 on January 3 at Retama) and I don't see any reason he won't be able to run on the main track.
"The other horse (Rainbow Trip) just continues to improve and I figure he deserves this chance against this kind of competition," Pish added. "He had a nice race going seven furlongs on the main track at Louisiana Downs and he's gotten a lot better since then. Both horses are leaving (Retama) for New Orleans (Friday) morning."
Vicar's in Trouble, a Mike Maker-trained Louisiana-bred who broke his maiden December 14 with a 13-length romp against state-bred company at Fair Grounds on Louisiana Champions Day, also appears headed for the Lecomte after working five furlongs in 1:01 3/5 last Saturday.
Roman Unbridled, not an early-bird nomination to the Louisiana Derby but a Lecomte nomination by last Saturday's deadline, is trained by Chad Cook and appears headed for this first leg of Fair Grounds sophomore series off an 8 1/2-length score in the Big Drama at Delta Downs on January 4.
Fair Grounds-based trainer Keith Desormeaux nominated Silent Ruler to the Lecomte prior to last Saturday's deadline and the Lafayette, Louisiana, native was somewhat non-committal when asked if Silent Ruler would be a Lecomte contestant on Thursday.
"That's a thought-provoking idea," Desormeaux mused. "That's about where we're at with that right now."
Asked about the status of Ive Struck a Nerve, last season's upset Risen Star winner who was injured prior to the 2013 Louisiana Derby but was due back at Fair Grounds about January 1, Desormeaux said the bay colt's return has been delayed a month or two.
"There are no further issues with him," Desormeaux said, "we just want to make sure that his fracture is totally healed before we start back with him."