01/24/2010 9:09PM

Weekend Notes


While the first steps on this year's Derby Trail were in the spotlight Saturday, it was a pair of last year's classic candidates who turned in the day's top performances.

Friesian Fire and General Quarters ran 1-2 in the ungraded $75k Louisiana Handicap at the Fair Grounds, a race that came up 14 Beyer points faster than the featured Grade 3 $100k LeComte for 3-year-olds three races later. Friesian Fire swept last year's Fair Grounds preps, winning the LeComte, Risen Star and Louisiana Derby, then finished 18th as the 3.80-1 favorite in the Kentucky Derby. General Quarters won the Sam F. Davis and the Blue Grass, then ran 10th as the 10.30-1 fifth choice on Derby Day. Both colts returned in the Preakness, running 9th and 10th, then both went to the sidelines until losing their seasonal debuts in separate Fair Grounds allowance races last month.

Perhaps those losing returns is what made these graded winners 3-1 and 6-1 respectively on the morning line for the Louisana Handicap (behind a pair of locals with a combined record of 0-for-11 in graded stakes), but they were bet down to 9-5 and 2-1. Both improved sharply second-time back and crushed the competition -- Friesian Fire scored by 1 1/2 lengths and it was 7 1/2 lengths back from General Quarters to ML favorite Good and Lucky in 3rd. The time for the mile and a sixteenth was 1:43.39, which translated to a Beyer of 104.

Friesian Fire, trained last year by Larry Jones, is now in Steve Asmussen's stable, and the trainer said he thinks the A. P. Indy colt still has room for improvement. The question now is whether he stays at Fair Grounds or goes to Gulfstream to take on Quality Road in the Grade 1 Donn Feb. 1.

As for this year's LeComte winner, Ron the Greek is an exciting colt who drops way back and makes one run, but his winning time of 1:40.09 for a mile and 40 yards translated to Beyer of only 90 -- no disgrace for a 3-year-old in January, but he'll have to improve. He also got a perfect set-up in the LeComte, benefitting from a sharp and contested pace. Maximus Ruler, who was sent off the 2.30-1 favorite, ran very well in just his third career start to win the pace battle and still hold second to the last-to-first winner.

Saturday's other graded Derby prep, the G3 $150k Holy Bull at Gulfstream, earned a 91 Beyer for the victorious Winslow Homer, but the entire race may have been better than it looked on final time, given an unusually strong pace in which most of the leading contenders were involved. Early fractions of 23.86 and 45.76 may not sound blazing, but they are for Gulfstream's oddly-timed (virtually no run-up) one-turn miles. The opening halves in the day's two other races at that distance were run in 48.23 and 48.18.

In the Holy Bull, there were five horses just heads apart through the opening quarter, including Jackson Bend, who was under pressure from start to finish and arguably ran as well as the winner. Winslow Homer was just off the hot fractions, moved well to the lead, and outlinished Jackson Bend by three-quarters of a length in 1:35.97. The final quarter of 26.33 doesn't immediately make you smell roses, but the pace took a toll. IF you believe the posted fractions, the entire field ran sub-22 second quarters.

---Meanwhile back at the local ranch, Aqueduct is dark until Friday after running races for 11 of the last 12 days. There was a $118k pick-six carryover in Saturday's sequence, but it looked too tough to me to get involved, and it was. Only two players came up with the winning combo and rewarded with $190,629 apiece. Only 6 of the 12 horses were covered in the finale, from 1 to 4 times each.

It was harder than the win mutuels ($4.60, $26.00, $15.20, $3.80, $27.60, $18.00) might make it look. The second and fifth winners both were much longer than their 12-1 win mutuels in the other multirace payoffs, and went off as the 6th and 7th choices in their fields.

Saturday's card also featured the return of Saturday guaranteed pick-4's, at $250k through the end of the current meeting. The guarantee drew a Saturday pool of $379, 838, up from $225k a week earlier.