03/28/2013 3:39PM

Byron King: Bill Mott has strong hand for Louisiana Derby's supporting stakes

Barbara D. Livingston
Flat Out has won both of his starts at Fair Grounds and could give trainer Bill Mott a win in Saturday's Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – In examining the past performances for Saturday’s card at Fair Grounds, I initially focused on the logical race, the $1 million Louisiana Derby. The race seemed ripe for betting, drawing a field of 14, with horses converging there from across the country.

Yet, ultimately, my confidence level in handicapping that race fell short of other races on the card. I found myself more excited about betting two supporting stakes: the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap and the Grade 2 Mervin Muniz Memorial.

In each of those races, I see Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott holding the upper hand with his representatives: first with Flat Out in the New Orleans Handicap, and then with Amira’s Prince in the Mervin Muniz.

Their appeal is largely based on the fact that despite having clear virtues, there will be some bettors who question them for one reason or another.

Flat Out has a reputation as a horse who is awesome at Belmont Park and far less so everywhere else. It’s easy to understand how some have come to that conclusion, as he has won the past two Jockey Club Gold Cups at Belmont, both times beating horses who would go on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. In 2011, that was Drosselmeyer, and last year, Fort Larned.

Meanwhile, Flat Out ran fifth in the 2011 Classic at Churchill Downs and finished a non-threatening third last year at Santa Anita.

Now, coming off a dull fourth-place finish in the Donn Handicap in his first start of the year at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 9, Mott is bringing him to Fair Grounds to run in one of the best editions of the New Orleans Handicap in recent memory.

But if one digs deep enough into Flat Out’s past performances, the evidence suggests he should run to his potential over the Fair Grounds surface. He is 2 for 2 over the track, having won a six-furlong maiden race as a 2-year-old in 2008, and then winning an allowance there in December 2010 when returning from a year-and-a-half layoff.

Admittedly, his 2-for-2 local record won’t be ignored by bettors, nor will his extensive Grade 1 experience. But don’t look for him to be the favorite.

Graydar, having just won the Donn by three lengths over fellow New Orleans Handicap starter Bourbon Courage, is the 2-1 morning-line favorite. And don’t be surprised if he drops even further come post time, with lone-speed bettors likely to pound him at the betting windows.

The issue with Graydar is whether he can replicate his Donn performance over an unfamiliar track such as Fair Grounds, which typically doesn’t favor speed horses the way Gulfstream does.

Also likely to draw mutuel attention away from Flat Out is Mark Valeski, who won the Mineshaft on Feb. 23 at Fair Grounds in visually impressive fashion but in weak time in a slow-paced race.

After the New Orleans Handicap, the Louisiana Derby is up next, followed by the Mervin Muniz, a $400,000 grass race at about 1 1/8 miles.

Amira’s Prince, having won three in a row since arriving in the United States, including the Grade 2 Mac Diarmida at Gulfstream on Feb. 16, has flashy form that is difficult to miss. But my hope is that horseplayers will focus on the distances at which he has competed this winter, ranging from 1 3/8 miles to 1 1/2 miles, and view him as potentially vulnerable with the cutback in distance.

Mott and his owners are showing confidence in this horse by shooting for more lucrative stakes, rather than being content to run him in turf marathons, which at this time of year offer smaller pots than those at shorter distances.

Just last week, for example, Mott bypassed the Grade 2 Pan American at Gulfstream with him – where Amira’s Prince would have been the odds-on favorite against horses he just defeated in the Mac Diarmida. In that race, incidentally, the Mac Diarmida form held up, with Twilight Eclipse and Ioya Bigtime – fourth and third behind Amira’s Prince, finishing one-two.

Also, beyond Amira’s Prince’s three U.S. races, he showed overseas in Britain and Ireland that distance is of little consequence to him, having performed well at distances ranging from a mile to 1 5/8 miles. He is also a horse with tactical speed.

Amira’s Prince, like Flat Out, is the second choice on the morning line at 3-1, with the favorite in the Mervin Muniz being 5-2 shot Optimizer, who has swept the two preps leading up to this race.

Those odds are out of line, and if they hold come post time, Amira’s Prince will make an outstanding wager.