There is a reason Todd Pletcher continually enters more horses in the Kentucky Derby than any other trainer.
It's because he wins.
His 3-year-old colt, El Padrino, turned heads at The Fair Grounds this past Saturday with a wonderful performance in a grinding stretch duel with Larry Jones' Mark Valeski, giving everything he had in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes.
The Risen Star traditionally will showcase some Derby talent, and the 39th running of the race didn't disappoint the fans in New Orleans, or the punters across the country watching on simulcasts.
El Padrino, a 3-year-old chestnut colt by Pulpit out of the Giant's Causeway mare Enchanted Rock, won the 1 1/16-mile race in 1:42.96 on the fast main track.
Mark Valeski was part of coupled entry trained by Larry Jones. Many thought the horse to watch of the two was Le Comte Stakes champion, Mr. Bowling.
As in many horse races, the better horse on paper didn't run to expectations, but Mr. Bowling could also be forgiven for the condition of the track at Fair Grounds.
This past weekend, the bias on the track was extremely favoring to speed horses, and Mark Valeski and Mr. Bowling are polar opposites in running style.
Mr. Bowling finished dead last and was never involved in the race. It was highly unlikely that even on a track that favored closers, he would have been involved with the effort he showed throughout the race.
I would chalk it up to a disappointing effort from a horse that looked tired and possibly overmatched as the races continue to get longer.
The second-place finisher of the Le Comte Stakes, Z Dager (9-1), trained by Steve Asmussen, sat just off the pace for the most of the race and looked to be in prime position to make a move, but between the track bias and the performances of Mark Valeski and El Padrino, Z Dager had to settle for besting the rest and finishing third.
An interesting note: The 79-1 long shot, Hero of Order, was the pace setter of the race, and displayed how extreme the pace bias was on Saturday's card. He was tiring badly after Mark Valeski passed him up, but he still settled to finish a well-beaten and distant fourth.
Mutuel prices ($2)
7 - El Padrino $3.60 $2.80 $2.20
1A - Mark Valeski $3.20 $2.40
5 - Z Dager $3.20
What did we learn from The Risen Star?
As unimpressed as I was with the first leg of the three New Orleans Derby prep races of the spring when Mr. Bowling defeated a field of 13 in the Le Comte Stakes back in January, I feel the opposite about The Risen Star.
El Padrino's performance would have to be considered a great one considering he came from slightly off the pace and won a stretch-drive duel with Mark Valeski.
Trainer Todd Pletcher has not decided where he will send El Padrino for his final Derby prep race, but there is a good chance he could end up in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on March 31.
Alternatively, he could return to The Fair Grounds for the $1,000,000 Louisiana Derby on April 1.
At the this point, you can't really call any of these horses "Derby locks," but El Padrino can get there with a top-two finish in his next start.
What to look for this coming weekend?
The Grade 3 Gotham Stakes from Aqueduct on Saturday, March 3, 2012.
Can a filly make the Derby field?
The Grade 1 Las Virgenes Stakes from Santa Anita Park on Saturday, March 3, 2012.