The Louisiana Stakes, starring Mandaloun vs. Midnight Bourbon, sounds like deja vu all over again. And again. And again. And again. And, yes, again.
This latest duel — the sixth between the newly minted 4-year-olds and 2021 Triple Crown rivals — returns the pair to Fair Grounds and the $150,000 Grade 3 Louisiana Stakes. The 1 1/16-mile trek for older horses is one of 14 races on the New Orleans track’s Saturday card. Headlining that card is the Grade 3 Lecomte, a 10-4-2-1 Kentucky Derby points prep.
That’s fitting, considering both Mandaloun and Midnight Bourbon opened their 3-year-old campaigns in the Lecomte. There, Midnight Bourbon wired the field for his one and only victory in 2021.
That was the first of two times Midnight Bourbon beat his rival. The second came two months later, in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, where Midnight Bourbon finished second to Hot Rod Charlie. Mandaloun finished a well-beaten eighth, the only time in his career he finished more than a length behind the winner.
Currently, it’s Mandaloun 3, Midnight Bourbon 2
But Mandaloun owns three victories at his rival’s expense. The first came in last February’s Grade 2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds. The second came in the Derby, when 26/1 afterthought Mandaloun finished a half-length behind winner Medina Spirit. The third time came in the Grade 1 Haskell 2 1/2 months later. Mandaloun finished a long nose back of Hot Rod Charlie. But the latter was disqualified for interfering with Midnight Bourbon in a near-catastrophic, early-stretch collision.
That gave Mandaloun his fifth win in eight starts, with three of the five coming at Midnight Bourbon’s expense. It also sent him on a six-month hiatus that trainer Brad Cox said was a necessity. The Louisiana Stakes is Mandaloun’s first race since the July 17 Haskell.
“He needed time off. He made that decision easy,” Cox told Fair Grounds. “We stopped on him and gave him time. For horses to progress, whether it be from two to three or three to four, they need a break. He’s received his break and he’s come back. Listen, I’m not going to tell you that he’s working better than ever because he’s always a very, very good work horse to begin with. I think anybody that watched him train up to the Kentucky Derby could believe the way he ran, the way he was training. He’s definitely working as well as he was leading up to the Derby, or the Haskell. So we’re in a good spot with him.”
Both rivals hitting the Lasix for this one
That spot comes as the Louisiana Stakes even-money, morning-line favorite. It also comes with Lasix for the first time. Midnight Bourbon, meanwhile, carries 6/5 morning-line odds against his rival. He also comes in on Lasix along with blinkers for the first time.
The blinkers are the latest tactic trainer Steve Asmussen employs to get the talented, but underachieving, grinder over the top. That Lecomte victory opening 2021 marked Midnight Bourbon’s lone win in nine races last year. Four of the nine were seconds, with three of those (Preakness, Travers, Pennsylvania Derby) being Grade 1s. This doesn’t factor in Midnight Bourbon’s thirds in the Risen Star and last out’s Grade 1 Clark Stakes in November.
“As good as he’s been, I think there’s more there,” Asmussen told Fair Grounds. “It doesn’t look like he’s finishing it off. He’s not exhausted when he comes back. I think we can get a little more out of him. There is the possibility that it makes him more aggressive and that he gets in too big of a hurry. The Louisiana Stakes is the perfect time to try it (blinkers).”
A Grade 3 field with two Grade 1 caliber runners
Will it be enough in the Louisiana Stakes? Both Mandaloun ($1,651,252) and Midnight Bourbon ($1,167,970) are millionaires, the only seven-figure earners in the seven-horse field. Both are graded stakes winners and Triple Crown-placed. But throughout their careers, Mandaloun has always shown more raw talent and greater speed. Three times out of five, that’s been plenty.
Should you want to venture afield or go deep in exotics, there’s West Virginia Governor winner Sprawl (10/1), Oklahoma Derby winner and Cox trainee Warrant (12/1) and Tenacious Stakes winner Chess Chief (12/1). All three would merit serious attention in a typical Grade 3.
A typical Grade 3 without two behemoths.