02/21/2013 4:44PM

Fair Grounds Handicap a tricky race due to soft course


NEW ORLEANS – Everyone knows Chad Brown is sending a horse to New Orleans this week, with Normandy Invasion probably favored to win the Risen Star Stakes here Saturday. Much less widely known is that Brown has sent two horses to New Orleans.

Hyper was one of 11 horses entered in the Grade 3, $150,000 Fair Grounds Handicap. Hyper will be Brown’s second starter at Fair Grounds. The first was Casino Host, who won the Mervin Muniz Handicap last March.

To run Brown’s local record to 2 for 2, Hyper has two principal rivals to beat, Willcox Inn and Optimizer, but an upset isn’t out of the question, especially if the local forecast holds, and heavy rain Thursday and Friday turns the turf here to mush. Extreme conditions are known to produce random results.

In a more logical framework, Willcox Inn and Optimizer will slug it out in the 1 1/8-mile Fair Grounds Handicap, with Optimizer attempting to win his second grass stakes of the meet. Sent here for the Colonel Bradley Handicap on Jan. 26, Optimizer dominated on the front end, turning a narrow lead halfway through the race into a convincing 3 1/2-length score with a strong stretch run. On paper, there is no real speed to keep Optimizer from another comfortable front-end journey.

The Bradley score, however, came over competition softer than Optimizer faces Saturday. The chief upgrade comes in the form of Willcox Inn, who made his first start since a ninth-place Breeders’ Cup Mile finish in the Jan. 26 Connally Cup at Sam Houston, finishing a troubled third.

“He’s been training great since the Connally,” said trainer Mike Stidham. “Off that race, and with the trouble he had, he should be coming up to a big effort.”

Asked about the prospect of racing on a sodden turf course, Stidham could only shrug his shoulders; Willcox Inn has no history on boggy grass. An even greater mystery is where Quality Control will fit into the mix. The Brazilian import, Group 1-placed on a soft turf course, came to trainer Tom Amoss last fall.

“His works have been good, but nothing – first, last – would be a surprise to me Saturday,” Amoss said.

Two Months Rent deserves a second look in wet conditions. He ran the best race of his life in a torrential downpour last fall in Chicago, winning the Grade 3 Hawthorne Derby over a course rated soft.