06/19/2014 11:52AM

Eramia chooses Sunbean over Grand Contender in Evangeline Mile

Dustin Orona Photography
Grand Contender brings a 7-for-8 record at the distance into Saturday's Evangeline Mile. He gets a rider switch to Gerard Melancon.

OPELOUSAS, La. – Miler supreme Grand Contender goes for his seventh win from eight tries at the distance in Saturday’s $100,000 Evangeline Mile at Evangeline Downs.

The Mile is one of four supporting stakes for the inaugural running of the $300,000 Evangeline Turf Sprint. The 11-race program has a special starting time of 3:50 p.m. Central.

“I think much of it boils down to pedigree,” trainer Tom Amoss said of Grand Contender, a son of Strong Contender out of the Twilight Agenda mare My Twilight Dancer. “He is also very pace-conscious. If the pace is too slow, he is on the lead. If it’s too hot, he rates.”

Grand Contender displayed versatility in his last two races, both at Lone Star Park. Stalking the pace April 26 in the Grade 3 Texas Mile, Grand Contender challenged three wide in the second turn and proved narrowly best after a lengthy stretch battle. One month later, in the Grade 3 Lone Star Park Handicap at 1 1/16 miles, he controlled the issue throughout en route to a four-length win.

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In an interesting subplot involving this year’s Mile, Grand Contender was ridden to victory in the two races at Lone Star by Richard Eramia, the regular rider of the crack Louisiana-bred Sunbean, who is expected to vie with Grand Contender for the role of favorite Saturday. Eramia’s agent, Rick Mocklin, was forced to make a difficult decision, electing to have his rider stick with Sunbean.

“It was a tough choice but an easy one, if that makes sense,” Mocklin said Wednesday from Louisiana Downs, where he doubles as the track announcer. Mocklin said Eramia rides often for trainer Ron Faucheux and owner Evelyn Benoit, the connections of Sunbean.

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“Richard and I talked about it quite a bit, and that is the direction we decided to go,” Mocklin said. “I will say this: Knowing those two horses like I do, it’s going to be a heck of a horse race. I think the whole situation was handled with a lot of class all around.”

Amoss agreed.

“I kind of thought which way they would go but wanted them to have the opportunity to tell me themselves,” Amoss said. “Hey, that’s horse racing. We love riding Richard, and hopefully we can hook up again when there is not a conflict.”

Amoss had a solid backup plan, enlisting the services of Gerard Melancon, who rode Grand Contender to victory in the Delta Mile last fall.

Opelousas field well matched

A full field of 12 fillies and mares will go 1 1/16 miles on turf in the $100,000 Opelousas Stakes. Faucheux, Benoit, and Eramia will once again team up with one of the favorites, Class Included. The 6-year-old Class Included accounted for two stakes wins on the Fair Grounds turf over the winter and most recently was unplaced in the Grade 1 Jenny Wiley at Keeneland.

In addition to riding Gantry in the Turf Sprint, Sunbean in the Mile, and Class Included in the Opelousas, Eramia will be aboard the morning-line favorites in the two seven-furlong stakes for Louisiana-bred 3-year-olds on the undercard.

In the $70,000 Lafayette, Louisiana Flyboy returns to his home state after spending the winter in New York, where he posted a pair of runner-up performances in allowance company under the care of Chad Brown. Louisiana Flyboy, a son of Fusaichi Pegasus, won his maiden at first asking in impressive fashion for current trainer Pat Mouton last summer at Louisiana Downs.

Our Quista should rule a solid choice in the $70,000 Acadiana for Louisiana-bred fillies off a near miss in the Louisiana Legends Soiree Stakes last month on turf. She returns to the main track, where she has posted a 2-1-0 record from three starts for trainer Al Cates.