Digging Into the Kentucky Derby Preps: 2022 Lecomte Stakes

Roger LeBlanc (for LazyBettorUSA.com)

On Saturday, January 22, the Fair Grounds presented a racing card tailormade for Kentucky Derby enthusiasts. And it wasn’t just the ultra-competitive Lecomte Stakes on offer. Owners, trainers and bettors got treated to multiple races for up-and-coming 3-year-olds:

  • Two maiden races at a distance of 8.5 furlongs
  • An allowance race at 8.5 furlongs
  • The Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes at 8.5 furlongs
  • The Silverbulletday Stakes for fillies at a mile and 70 yards

Sorting Kentucky Derby Dreamers from Rose-Blanket Realists

Handicappers couldn’t ask for better comparisons of Derby hopefuls than five races for 3-year-olds contested on the same day at the same distance.

Comparing winning times for the four races featuring colts reveals key information for handicappers. Not surprisingly as the class levels got tougher, the final times got quicker. A list of winning times shows the top three finishers in the Lecomte completed the distance much faster than winners of the maiden and allowance races:

  • Maiden Special Weight: Peaceful Waters 1:45.57
  • Maiden Special Weight: Gunfighter 1:45.32
  • Allowance, Nonwinners of 2 Lifetime: Pioneer of Medina 1:45.21
  • Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes: Call Me Midnight (1st) 1:44.36
  • Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes: Epicenter (2nd) 1:44.40
  • Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes: Pappacap (3rd) 1:44.50

These final times show that the lower level winners aren’t yet worthy of competing in Derby preps. Even allowance winner Pioneer of Medina ran four lengths slower than the top two finishers in the Lecomte.

Creating a Broader Derby Prep-Race Context

This simple quality gauge tags the top pair in the Lecomte as standouts among Saturday’s 39 3-year-old competitors. But how do the best runners in the Lecomte compare to other stakes horses? The answer can help you make wise wagers in upcoming Kentucky Derby prep races.

Thanks to great planning by the Fair Grounds’ racing secretary, we have a way to gauge that too!

Saturday’s card also featured the Grade 3 Louisiana Stakes for older horses. You’d expect that race time to be the fastest of the five races contested at a mile and a sixteenth that day. And you’d be right. Mandaloun won the race in a time of 1:42.52, nearly two full seconds faster than the Lecomte winner Call Me Midnight. This broader context suggests the Lecomte runners are actually slow for stakes-level horses. But that’s not the whole story.

Let’s rank these races according to fastest early pace and see what happens:

  • Lecomte Stk. (Epicenter): 1:12.16
  • Louisiana Stk. (Midnight Bourbon): 1:12.23
  • Louisiana Stk. (Mandaloun): 1:12.33
  • Lecomte Stk. (Call Me Midnight): 1:13.00
  • Allowance Race (Pioneer of Medina): 1:13.50

Lecomte runnerup Epicenter set the quickest pace of the day. This young 3-year-old ran faster to the midway point than highly accomplished older stakes horses, but he still nearly hung on for victory. Even more impressive was Epicenter’s opening half mile of 47 seconds, which was more than a full second faster than the early pace of the Louisiana Stakes.

Replays of the Lecomte show jockey Joel Rosario hustling Epicenter aggressively for the lead into the first turn. Rosario had just lost the Louisiana Stakes the race before after securing the lead for Midnight Bourbon in slower time. He must’ve known he was pushing Epicenter through very challenging opening fractions. Was this race an experiment by the trainer and jockey to test how fast Epicenter can run without tiring? Or was it a way of increasing the horse’s stamina for the longer races ahead?

Another possibility, of course, is that Epicenter showed himself to be a hot-headed speedster unlikely to compete well in longer races.

One final comparison that might be helpful is a look at last year’s Lecomte winner, Midnight Bourbon:

  • 2021 Lecomte (Midnight Bourbon): 1:13.40 6F time, 1:44.41 final time
  • 2022 Lecomte (Epicenter): 1:12.16 6F time, 1:44.40 final time

Epicenter’s 6-furlong split also exceeds the pace that Midnight Bourbon and Mandaloun achieved in the ensuing Risen Star Stakes.

Divining the Future from Epicenter’s Company Line

Despite his taxing early effort, Epicenter outgamed the highly regarded Pappacap, who settled for third place. Pappacap earned his fame by twice finishing second to Bob Baffert’s BC Juvenile winner Corniche. His trainer Mark Casse said he expected a top effort in the Lecomte, given the gusto with which Pappacap was training.

With Epicenter duplicating Corniche’s late-race smackdown of a fit-and-ready Pappacap, handicapper’s might be wise to put a positive spin on Epicenter’s efforts in the Lecomte.

Epicenter competes next in the Risen Star Stakes. Although Epicenter narrowly lost the Lecomte, the tale of the timer suggests greater accomplishments for him lie ahead.