12/12/2012 4:52PM

Fair Grounds: Louisiana Handicap first of three 2013 targets for Bourbon Courage

Lynn Roberts/Hodges Photography
Bourbon Courage is likely to make his 4-year-old debut on Jan. 19 in the Louisiana Handicap.

No one knew it at this time last year, but an unraced colt named Bourbon Courage might have been the best 2-year-old in New Orleans. But when Bourbon Courage arrived for his second winter at Fair Grounds this past Saturday, he came carrying a r é sum é that makes him a strong candidate to be the leading older horse on the grounds.

Best of all, if things go according to plan, it won’t take long to get a strong sense of where Bourbon Courage fits into the early season handicap division. His trainer, Kellyn Gorder, said Bourbon Courage is likely to make his 4-year-old debut in the $100,000 Louisiana Handicap on Jan. 19. That could be the first of three races at the meeting, with stops in the $150,000 Mineshaft Handicap on Feb. 23 and the $400,000 New Orleans Handicap on March 30 also lightly penciled into Bourbon Courage’s schedule.

“We’re looking at the series down there starting with the Louisiana Handicap, unless he tells us differently,” Gorder said.

A trip to the Grade 1 Donn Handicap on Feb. 3 has been discussed and not entirely ruled out, Gorder said, but running Bourbon Courage out of his own stall and on a track surface over which he has excelled is an appealing proposition, particularly with the big payday awaiting at meet’s end.

Bourbon Courage didn’t start until 2012, but won his debut race in February at Fair Grounds by more than four lengths, earning a graded-stakes-class 103 Beyer Speed Figure. He followed that up with an equally impressive blowout allowance-race win in March that produced another triple-digit Beyer. The runner-up in that allowance race, Macho Macho, won the Grade 2 West Virginia Derby in August.

Bourbon Courage finished a tough-luck second in the West Virginia Derby, one of three losses in the second half of the year that might have turned out differently. Bourbon Courage won the Grade 2 Super Derby by five lengths about a month after the West Virginia race, then got into traffic trouble and was hung very wide finishing second to the good colt Neck ’n Neck in the Indiana Derby. He finished off his 3-year-old campaign chasing loose-on-a-slow-pace Shackleford in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap on Nov. 23, rallying to finish third, a head behind Grade 1 winner Take Charge Indy and a length away from Shackleford.

Gorder said he saw no point in giving Bourbon Courage a winter break, a boon to the Fair Grounds older-male dirt-route program.

“He’s been training really well, and he’s a sound horse,” he said. “I actually think he’s put on some weight since the Clark, and he looks great.

String King earns class test

String King has won four of the last six Louisiana-bred older-horse turf stakes run in the state and finished a close second in one of those losses. And after scoring his second straight victory in the $100,000 Louisiana Champions Day Turf this past Saturday, String King might be ready to step into graded-stakes competition, trainer Charlie Smith believes.

“His Beyer figures have been good enough that I think he might deserve a shot in graded company,” said Smith, who bred and owns String King in addition to training him.

Smith said String King won Saturday’s race despite disliking a wet Fair Grounds turf course. He pointed out that String King still trailed pacesetting Lovely Vin by more than four lengths at the stretch call: In his previous eight starts, String King either had led or been second at the stretch call.

“He really ran the last sixteenth pretty fast, though, and that’s what got him there,” Smith said.

Smith has kept String King at Fair Grounds under the daily care of trainer Kenneth Hargrave during the last couple months. The 4-year-old String King will travel several hours northwest to his more permanent home at the River Point Equestrian and Training Center in Haughton, La., this weekend, Smith said, and will gear down into light training the next couple weeks.

“I’ll look for something for him in 30 or 40 days,” said Smith, whose ideal arrangement would be to prep String King for an open-stakes try in a Fair Grounds turf allowance race.

“I think he’s still getting better. He really hasn’t reached his peak yet.”

Sittin At The Bar wont move up yet

The most impressive winner on Champions Day, the 2-year-old filly Sittin At the Bar, will remain in Louisiana-bred competition for now, trainer Brett Brinkman said Tuesday. But if Sittin At the Bar continues to dominate statebred-restricted races like she did the Champions Day Lassie, she will get a chance to see how she fits with graded-stakes class fillies in March, either in the Fair Grounds Oaks or the Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn.

Sittin At the Bar, a wide-closing third in the Grade 3 Delta Downs Princess Stakes on Nov. 17, was the only outside closer to win any of the 10 dirt races on Saturday’s card. And boy did she win. Rallying from fifth in the early stages, she whizzed by the front-runners in upper stretch and drew off to an eight-length victory. Her winning six-furlong time of 1:11.10 was faster than older male horses ran in the Sprint a couple races later.

There are several upcoming Louisiana-bred races in which Sittin At the Bar could compete, the first one of which is the Louisiana Futurity on Dec. 31. Brinkman doesn’t want to over-race Sittin At the Bar, but said he would consider her for the Futurity if the race does not appear to be coming up with a strong field. Early in 2013, there are Louisiana-bred opportunities at Delta Downs that Sittin At the Bar is likely to exercise. If she overmatches her rivals there like she did Saturday, Sittin At the Bar will get at least one chance to earn her way to a race like the Kentucky Oaks.

“The Fantasy or the Oaks, that’s where we’d go to take on those kind of horses,” Brinkman said.

◗ Names for two new Fair Grounds stakes determined through a contest involving fans and Fair Grounds employees were announced earlier this week. A turf-sprint stakes for 3-year-olds on Jan. 26 will be called the Van Berg Stakes, while a 3-year-old filly turf-sprint stakes Feb. 2 has been named the Battle of New Orleans .