Just a few days ago, barely more than a handful of horses were committed to Saturday's 98th running of the Louisiana Derby (G2), but come entry time, the hefty $1 million purse ended up luring a bumper crop of 13 aspiring three-year-olds at Fair Grounds. As expected, MUCHO MACHO MAN (Macho Uno) returns to the scene of his impressive victory in the February 19 Risen Star S. (G2), and rates as a clear-cut 9-5 favorite on the morning line against such rivals as ELITE ALEX (Afleet Alex), the uncoupled Neil Howard duo of MACHEN (Distorted Humor) and WILKINSON (Lemon Drop Kid), and the undefeated LEFT (Arch).
Trained by Kathy Ritvo, Mucho Macho Man first flashed promise when finishing runner-up to the highly-rated To Honor and Serve (Bernardini) in the Nashua S. (G2) and Remsen S. (G2) last fall. He got closer to the winner in the Remsen, contested over the same 1 1/8-mile distance as the Louisiana Derby.
Mucho Macho Man made his sophomore debut in the January 30 Holy Bull S. (G3) at his Gulfstream Park base, where he was cutting back in trip to a one-turn mile. Compromised by being bumped hard in the opening strides, Mucho Macho Man moved up to argue the testing pace, and he understandably tired late for fourth behind Dialed In (Mineshaft). Ritvo next decided to ship to Fair Grounds for the Risen Star, a race that set up much better for him.
Besides getting the opportunity to stretch back out to two turns in the 1 1/16-mile Risen Star, Mucho Macho Man also took the blinkers off, an equipment change that might have helped him relax early. The strapping bay responded by powering to a 1 1/2-length victory. A repeat of that performance would make him difficult to beat Saturday, especially since his nearest pursuers in the Risen Star are absent. Runner-up Santiva (Giant's Causeway) is aiming for the April 16 Blue Grass S. (G1), while third-placer Rogue Romance (Smarty Jones) has been knocked off the Derby trail by injury.
Rajiv Maragh, who picked up the mount from seriously-injured rider Eibar Coa, will be back in the saddle when Mucho Macho Man breaks from post 5.
Risen Star fourth-placer Machen is eligible to improve. A commanding winner of his first two starts, the Howard trainee showed his relative inexperience in his stakes debut, and only third lifetime outing, in the Risen Star. Machen rallied with a strong bid on the far turn, but didn't sustain it down the stretch and crossed the wire 4 1/4 lengths adrift of Mucho Macho Man. Machen has trained forwardly in the interim, firing a five-furlong bullet in :59 3/5 here on March 15, and is well drawn in post 7. The 7-2 second choice on the morning line, he picks up the services of Edgar Prado for the Louisiana Derby.
Howard's other entrant, Wilkinson, has been freshened since his narrow score over PANTS ON FIRE (Jump Start) in the January 22 Lecomte S. (G3) over the track. Garrett Gomez, who was in the irons for the mile-and-40-yard Lecomte, comes back in for the ride. Wilkinson, pegged at 8-1, landed in post 10.
Likely pacesetter Pants on Fire opened his three-year-old campaign with a fading third in the Count Fleet S. on New Year's Day at Aqueduct, but hung much tougher in the Lecomte. After getting away with steady fractions, the Kelly Breen pupil was on the verge of a wire-to-wire victory, only to have Wilkinson get up on the rail to deny him by a head. Pants on Fire never made it to the front next time in the Risen Star, ultimately checking in sixth after a wide trip. This time, he figures to show his customary early speed from post 2 with new rider Rosie Napravnik, who's about to become the first female to win the Fair Grounds riding title.
Pants on Fire is part of a coupled entry with his stablemate NACHO BUSINESS (Rahy), the only runner other than Mucho Macho Man with experience at the 1 1/8-mile distance. A good-looking winner in his first try at Gulfstream on January 30, defeating future Fountain of Youth S. (G2) fourth Bowman's Causeway (Giant's Causeway), Nacho Business returned with a rallying second to the Florida Derby (G1)-bound Arch Traveler in a February 26 allowance going 1 1/8 miles. Regular pilot Joe Bravo will be in the cockpit as he breaks from the rail.
The Oaklawn-based Elite Alex, the 6-1 third choice on the morning line, was a late addition to the Louisiana Derby field. Originally entered in Saturday's Rebel S. (G2) at Oaklawn, he was scratched after drawing post 10. Unfortunately, the Tim Ritchey charge wound up in post 12 at Fair Grounds. The well-regarded bay is past due for a change in luck, since he just failed to win a January 15 allowance/optional claimer after a terrible break, and he was hung out wide en route to his third in the February 21 Southwest S. (G3). Three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel has said that Elite Alex reminds him of 2007 Derby hero Street Sense, and hopefully the colt will now have an opportunity to show what he can do.
Left has been somewhat left in the shadow of his ultra-impressive stablemate from the Al Stall Jr. barn, Bind (Pulpit), who will make his second start in Saturday's 4TH race at Fair Grounds. But Left is no slouch, as his two-for-two record implies. He overcame a wide trip around both turns to win a turf maiden here on January 29, and followed up with a comfortable victory over stablemate Sour (Lemon Drop Kid) in a February 26 allowance/optional claimer on the dirt. Jesse Campbell, who has guided the gelding in both of his starts, will try to make it three in a row. Left's cause wasn't helped by getting post 11, though.
Rounding out the field are MAVERICKING (Empire Maker), third in the grassy Grindstone S. in his latest; MAJESTIC HARBOR (Rockport Harbor), a 6 1/4-length maiden romper at Fair Grounds last time; the uncoupled Steve Asmussen shippers NEHRO (Mineshaft), who exits a resounding maiden score at Oaklawn, and LE MANS (War Front), fourth in his two tries at Santa Anita; LIONDRIVE (Lion Tamer), 10th in the Risen Star; and Louisiana-bred stakes winner POPULIST POLITICS (Don't Get Mad), who is cross-entered to Friday's Crescent City Derby.