Longer Fair Grounds Preps Working Out Well for Cox

When trainer Brad Cox first noticed in 2020 that the distances for the Risen Star Stakes (G2) and Louisiana Derby (G2) at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots were extended, he figured his eyes were deceiving him. "I thought it was a typo," he recalled. "I called Scott Jones (Fair Grounds racing secretary) and asked if it was a mistake in the condition book and he said 'no' and I told him, 'I don't know if that's a good idea.'" The switches involved tacking a half-furlong on to both 3-year-old stakes, lengthening the Risen Star to 1 1/8 miles and the Louisiana Derby to 1 3/16 miles, making it the longest of the Kentucky Derby (G1) preps in the United States. As it turns out, it didn't take long for Cox's tune to quickly change. He won a division of the 2020 Risen Star with Mr. Monomoy and the 2020 Louisiana Derby with Wells Bayou. He also posted his third Risen Star win in four years with Angel of Empire last month, and was second in last year's Louisiana Derby with Zozos. "I really questioned it but it has worked out for us and I have to give Scott Jones credit," Cox said. "It's been a big draw with big fields. Overall this Fair Grounds road to the Kentucky Derby or Triple Crown is a great way to go." Cox's pleasure with the changes just might grow this weekend as the two-time Eclipse Award winner will send out three of the 12 starters in the $1 million Louisiana Derby, including the probable favorite in Gold Square's Instant Coffee. A son of Bolt d'Oro, Instant Coffee landed post 2 in a field of 12 at the March 18 post position draw for the Kentucky Derby prep that offers 100-40-30-20-10 points to the top-five finishers. Wins in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) at Churchill Downs and then the Lecomte Stakes (G3) at Fair Grounds gave him 32 qualifying points (ninth on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard) and a victory in his final Run for the Roses prep would likely establish him as no worse than the third favorite on the first Saturday in May. "He has shown up every time and has not shown me any signs that he's regressing. He's not the flashiest of horses but we like what we have seen since the Lecomte. The plan was to give him three runs before the Kentucky Derby and hopefully, he can wrap up his spot with a big effort in the Louisiana Derby," Cox said. Instant Coffee has already faced Kentucky Derby favorite Forte, finishing fourth behind him in the Breeders' Futurity (G1) at Keeneland, but Cox believes Instant Coffee's inexperience worked against him that October afternoon. "Forte is the leader in the clubhouse, and totally deserves to be. But when I look back at Instant Coffee's race against him in just his second start, I wonder if he had a little more seasoning, he might have closed (better) and been closer at the end. He was a little green early in the race and didn't settle. He's learned a lot since then and is a pretty good horse." Out of the Uncle Mo mare Follow No One, Instant Coffee, bred by Sagamore Farm, was bought for $200,000 from the Upson Downs Farms consignment at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale by Joe Hardoon, racing manager for owner Al Gold. As for Cox's other starters, West Point Thoroughbreds and Albaugh Family Stables' Jace's Road will be hoping for sunny skies on Louisiana Derby Day. A son of Quality Road, he won the Gun Runner Stakes by 5 1/2 lengths but that win is sandwiched between a fifth in the Southwest Stakes (G3) and an eighth in the Street Sense Stakes (G3), both on sloppy tracks. "I think you have to throw out his two races in the mud. That's what I'm hopeful of," said Cox, who has already captured six of the 27 Kentucky Derby qualifying races. "I think he has the talent, but he has to step forward in the afternoon." Cox's Tapit's Conquest was fourth in the Risen Star while making his stakes debut. The Tapit colt owned by Robert LaPenta, e Five Racing Thoroughbreds, and Madaket Stables seemed poised to make a big stretch run in the Risen Star but lost ground in the final furlong. "He seems to be developing mentally and physically," Cox said. "At the three-sixteenths pole in the Risen Star I thought the race was for the taking, but he didn't do any taking. Yet he does have talent and I don't think we've seen the best of him yet." Besides the Cox trio, the top contenders include R. T. Racing Stable and Cypress Creek Equine's Sun Thunder, a son of Into Mischief who was second by a length in the Risen Star for trainer Ken McPeek. Spendthrift Farm's undefeated Kingsbarns (Uncle Mo) enters off a 7 3/4-length allowance optional claiming win at Tampa Bay Downs for trainer Todd Pletcher in his second career start. Disarm, Winchell Thoroughbreds' homebred son of Gun Runner, could take a step forward after finishing a troubled second in a Feb. 19 allowance optional claiming race at Oaklawn Park. It was his first start for trainer Steve Asmussen since a lopsided Aug. 6 maiden victory at Saratoga Race Course. The full field, from the rail out, includes Shopper's Revenge, Instant Coffee, grade 3 winner Curly Jack, Sun Thunder, Disarm, Kingsbarns, Cagliostro, Single Ruler, Tapit's Conquest, Denington, Jace's Road, and Baseline Beater.