01/25/2013 2:47PM

Fair Grounds: Friendly Banter logical choice if feature remains on turf

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NEW ORLEANS – Returning at the same distance and class level at which he lost by a nose in a three-horse photo Dec. 15, Friendly Banter is part of an entry that is the morning-line favorite in the Sunday feature at the Fair Grounds.

Major Gain, his entrymate, is the only also-eligible among the 11 older horses. The race is a second-level optional $40,000 claiming event scheduled to be run at about 1 1/16 miles on the turf.

“I like them both, but I’ll probably run Friendly Banter even if Major Gain draws in,’’ said trainer Louie Roussel III, who is co-owner of Friendly Banter with Ronnie Lamarque and sole owner of Major Gain. “I think they’re both very competitive in that spot.’’

Roussel is having a solid meet, with three wins, two second places, and one third through Thursday.

Friendly Banter nearly provided another victory, rallying from off the pace but being outfinished by Tetradrachm on Dec. 15. Mop Head, who finished third in that race, a nose behind Friendly Banter, also is returning in this race.

Friendly Banter has performed well on the Fair Grounds turf course, though he hasn’t won in four starts on it. Last season on the course, he was blocked in traffic in the stretch before finishing fifth in the Woodchopper Stakes, and he finished second in a first-level allowance race.

Mop Head, trained by Mike Stidham, pressed the pace in the Dec. 15 race and opened daylight in midstretch, but couldn’t hold on.

Roussel said that Mop Head and Thespian’s Fate, trained by Malcolm Pierce, will be tough opposition. Thespian’s Fate hasn’t raced since defeating first-level allowance rivals at 1 1/4 miles Nov. 3 on the synthetic surface at Woodbine.

Major Gain won a first-level allowance race at about a mile on the turf Dec. 21 in his second start since Roussel purchased him privately. As a 2-year-old in 2010, Major Gain won the Grade 3 Arlington-Washington Futurity.

Prime Cut will be making his second start since returning from a layoff of more than 17 months. On Jan. 5, Prime Cut, who is trained by David Carroll, finished third at this level in a 1 1/8-mile race switched from turf to dirt.

Though Friendly Banter won on the Fair Grounds dirt in 2012, Roussel said that he probably would scratch both of his horses if the race is switched to the main track.

“I may change my mind,’’ he said.