Why would a trainer ship two three-year-olds into New Orleans with such unorthodox past performances as Dennis Foster's Got Shades and Cesar Parra's Rainbow Trip for a race like Saturday's Grade 3 Lecomte? After all, the Lecomte is the centerpiece of Road to the Derby Kickoff Day at Fair Grounds, and it is for sophomores with designs on the 2014 Triple Crown later this spring.
Got Shades, a colt by Pollard's Vision, has never raced on dirt, and Rainbow Trip, a gelding by Sightseeing, has been running on the grass for his last three starts.
Trainer Danny Pish, a former rodeo rider born in Cibolo, Texas, 48 years ago, is quick to answer the question.
"Circumstances change so much in this game," said Pish, a veteran of the Oklahoma-Texas-Louisiana circuit with 14 training titles at Retama, four at Sam Houston and one at Lone Star Park to his credit.
"The fact that both these horses have so much grass experience is not by design. I originally wanted to get both these horses ready for some stakes at Louisiana Downs and Lone Star, but around the part of the country where I race, the only way I could get them any experience going long was in grass races. It's hard to find races going two turns on the main track in my part of the country. I wanted to teach them to go long early on. I didn't want to mess around sprinting them in dirt races.
"I've been high on 'Shades' all along," Pish said. "This is a horse that wants to go long. But, 'Rainbow' has started to come around real good for me lately, too, and I figured he deserves this chance. He had a nice race for me going seven furlongs on the main track at Louisiana Downs and he's gotten a lot better since then. Both horses are coming into this race in really good shape.
"'Shades' has the quicker turn of foot. He's the key. But the gelding might come up and make a big splash of his own. I figure 'Shades' may sit just behind the speed, and 'Rainbow' might come from out of the clouds at the end.
"I realize that I'm sending them in against some pretty tough horses," Pish concluded, "but I'm not concerned. I like to do things my own way and it has worked out for me since I've been training. As far as I know, I think that's the reason they never pay off until after the race is run."
The importance of the Lecomte as a prep of future racing stars in recent years is immediately evident through its recent winners.
In 2007, Fox Hill Farms' Hard Spun, trained by Larry Jones, won the Lecomte and went on to finish second in the Kentucky Derby, third in the Preakness and fourth in the Belmont Stakes. The Danzig colt later went on to win Saratoga's King's Bishop, Turfway's Kentucky Cup Classic and then in the final race of his career ran second to Curlin in Monmouth's Breeders' Cup Classic.
In 2010, Jack Hammer's Ron the Greek won the Lecomte under the tutelage of Tom Amoss. That horse later went on to win the Santa Anita Handicap and Churchill's Stephen Foster in 2012, and most recently romped in Belmont's Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Last year, Calumet Farm's Oxbow, conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, won the Lecomte, went on to win the Preakness and then ran second in the Belmont Stakes.
As a 17-point Kentucky Derby qualifying race, the winner of the Lecomte will earn 10 points toward Kentucky Derby qualification, while the Lecomte runner-up will be award four points toward that goal. The third-place finisher in the Lecomte will earn two points and the fourth-place finisher will earn one point.
The Countdown Annual issue from Horseplayer Now reminds horse racing fans that all of the points-based three-year-old races can be accessed through the free digital magazine at Countdowntothecrown.com.