The Week in Review: Will the Road to Louisville Run Through New Orleans?

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Midnight Bourbon | Hodges Photography

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After Saturday's GIII Lecomte S., one thing's for certain: the offspring of broodmare Catch the Moon have a strong affinity for that main track in New Orleans.

Three of the four graded stakes winners the Malibu Moon mare has produced are now a collective 5-for-6 over the Fair Grounds dirt after the one-length wire job by Midnight Bourbon (Tiznow) in the first leg of the track's Road to the GI Kentucky Derby series.

Trainer Steve Asmussen's job will now involve trying to build upon that home-track advantage as Midnight Bourbon stretches out (likely in the next two sophomore preps at Fair Grounds) while making sure this $525,000 KEESEP colt saves a little something for Louisville on the first Saturday in May.

Midnight Bourbon's first stakes and two-turn win Jan. 16 came one year to the date that his older half-brother, Pirate's Punch (Shanghai Bobby), ran roughshod over a NW2X allowance field by 11 1/2 lengths at Fair Grounds prior to peaking as a two-time Grade III stakes winner deeper in the season.

And Midnight Bourbon's 7-2 win Saturday for Winchell Thoroughbreds has echoes of the 2017 Fair Grounds campaign of half-brother Girvin (Tale of Ekati), who for separate connections parlayed victories in the GII Risen Star S. and GII Louisiana Derby into a starting spot in the first leg of the Triple Crown. An untimely quarter crack two weeks prior to the Kentucky Derby and trip woes in the race itself contributed to a 13th-place finish, but Girvin rebounded smartly later in the season to win the GI Haskell Invitational S.

Trainers plan meticulous seasonal unveilings for their top-tier sophomores, but this doesn't stop fate from intervening on a routine basis. Last Saturday's 1 1/16-miles Lecomte is a prime example.

The race was initially drawn up on the overnight as being glutted with early speed, but three of the five projected pacemakers ended up scratching. Then Ricardo Santana, Jr., who is Asmussen's go-to rider, couldn't travel to New Orleans because of a family medical situation, so  Joe Talamo picked up the mount on Midnight Bourbon. When the gates finally opened, Santa Cruiser (Dialed In), who figured to be the top remaining Lecomte speed threat, got bumped and shuffled back, leaving him last in the field of eight.

Midnight Bourbon and Talamo took advantage of this unexpected pace vacuum, popping right on top from the rail and assuming command through moderate splits of :24.68 and :48.99.

The two horses closest in pursuit–the 8-1 Proxy (Tapit) and 4-5 favorite 'TDN Rising Star' Mandaloun (Into Mischief)–are no slouches, ranked at numbers five and nine, respectively, in the most recent edition of the TDN Derby Top 12. Proxy loomed boldly and got first run five-sixteenths out while Mandaloun appeared primed to pounce past them both at the quarter pole after going three wide on both turns.

Yet neither colt unleashed enough next-gear torque to seal the deal in the upper stretch, and Proxy and Mandaloun sparred back and forth for second while the freewheeling Midnight Bourbon cruised home in businesslike fashion.

His final time of 1:44.41 (0.14 seconds shy of the same-distance clocking by older horses in the GIII Louisiana S. three races earlier) translates to a very respectable 91 Beyer Speed Figure.

Midnight Bourbon's win also indirectly buoyed the stock of Jackie's Warrior (Maclean's Music), another top sophomore in the Asmussen barn who was announced Saturday as an Eclipse Award finalist for the 2-year-old male award. The Lecomte was Midnight Bourbon's first start since Oct. 10, when he ran a distant third in the GI Champagne S. behind Jackie's Warrior.

Although both of those colts are wintering at Fair Grounds, Asmussen is targeting the 1 1/16-mile GIII Southwest S. Feb. 15 at Oaklawn for Jackie's Warrior's 2021 debut. He indicated post-race Saturday that Midnight Bourbon would remain on a separate path, taking aim at the nine-furlong GII Risen Star S. Feb. 13 and then probably the 1 3/16-mile GII Louisiana Derby Mar. 20, both at Fair Grounds.

Those latter two preps mirror the path taken by half-brother Girvin four years ago. Although Midnight Bourbon belongs to the foal crop known for coming of age during the COVID-19 pandemic, Girvin's sophomore season was also affected by a disease outbreak.

Girvin broke his maiden sprinting at Fair Grounds in December 2016, then shipped out to train at the Evangeline Downs training center. A quarantine to try and contain equine herpesvirus prevented Girvin from returning to New Orleans to run in the January 2017 Lecomte S., although he was able to make it back to win both the Risen Star and the Louisiana Derby later that spring.

Girvin had the benefit of cuffing around fairly weak fields in both of his Fair Grounds prep victories. But one trait that became more apparent the more he raced for trainer Joe Sharp and owner Brad Grady was his rounding into an unflappable, professional sort of racehorse who could handle varying pace scenarios and multiple levels of in-race pressure.

After his 13th place Derby effort (that necessitated the wearing of a bar shoe to help his quarter crack), I wrote in a TDN Derby recap that, “Despite being caught in tight at the break and losing all momentum on the far turn when boxed and blocked, one thing about Girvin's Derby that was true to his earlier efforts was that he maintained his composure despite those multiple adversities.”

If the ability to keep a level head under duress also runs in the family, that would be a powerful attribute for Midnight Bourbon to share with his older brother as the Derby pressure intensifies.

The distances of the Fair Grounds preps have been elongated since Girvin's campaign, but seeing two-time GI Breeders' Cup Classic winner Tiznow parked atop Midnight Bourbon's pedigree suggests that the added sixteenth of a mile in both the Risen Star and the Louisiana Derby shouldn't be outside of his scope.

Remember, last year was the first season that Fair Grounds extended the distances within the prep series, but because of the pandemic-necessitated switch of the Kentucky Derby from May to September, we never got a chance to see what impact those longer preps had on the rescheduled  Triple Crown.

In addition to Midnight Bourbon, Girvin and Pirate's Punch, Catch the Moon also produced Grade III winner Cocked and Loaded (Colonel John). She is also the dam of a now 2-year-old Curlin colt that fetched $500,000 at KEESEP and a yearling colt by Quality Road. Perhaps those two unraced prospects will one day surface in New Orleans to further solidify the family tradition of excelling over the Fair Grounds main track.

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