03/30/2012 2:50PM

Fair Grounds: Mark Valeski gives off good vibes heading into Louisiana Derby

Alexander Barkoff/Hodges Photography
Jockey Rosie Napravnik and trainer Larry Jones both say Mark Valeski is working better than ever coming into Sunday's Louisiana Derby.

NEW ORLEANS – It’s a fair assumption that only a handful of racing fans were even tuned into the seventh race on Monday, July 12, 2011 at Delaware Park. And it’s also fair to assume that none of them could have imagined the long-range implications of that maiden race on the Kentucky Derby trail this spring.

The winner was a horse named Union Rags, the pro tem 3-year-old leader and favorite in the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby this weekend at Gulfstream Park. Checking in fourth was a colt named Mark Valeski, who has emerged as the top 3-year-old this winter in New Orleans and seems certain to be favored Sunday in the $1 million Louisiana Derby on closing day at Fair Grounds.

Mark Valeski began his 3-year-old campaign with a sharp sprint-allowance victory and followed it up with a game nose loss to high-class El Padrino in the Risen Star Stakes here last month. But the Louisiana Derby’s seven-figure purse appears to hold more sway over horsemen than Mark Valeski’s obvious ability: Though Arm Force is staying home in Florida, 12 other 3-year-olds are expected to square off against Mark Valeski in Sunday’s race.

The Louisiana Derby, contested at 1 1/8 miles, is the 10th of 14 races on the final program of the 2011-2012 racing season here. First post for a card that includes two other Grade 2 races – an excellent edition of the New Orleans Handicap and a competitive running of the Mervin Muniz – and seven stakes in all is set for 12:10 p.m. Central, with the derby field expected to depart at 4:55. An HRTV crew will be on hand here this weekend, and cozy Fair Grounds might well be packed with regular patrons. Sunday’s race falls between the semifinal games and the final of the NCAA Division 1 men’s college basketball tournament, and with Kentucky and Louisville among the final four teams, the derby day crowd should be heavier than usual.

A plurality of bettors here and elsewhere are likely to settle on Mark Valeski as the most likely winner of the Louisiana Derby. Mark Valeski, a Proud Citizen colt bred and owned by Brereton Jones, ran a fast 1 1/16 miles when narrowly beaten by El Padrino after a fierce stretch battle in the Risen Star. His trainer, Larry Jones, who won the 2009 Louisiana Derby with Friesan Fire, said he believes Mark Valeski wasn’t at peak fitness for the Risen Star. Jones, who daily gallops Mark Valeski, and jockey Rosie Napravnik, who works him, both have proclaimed Mark Valeski’s recent morning exercise superior to what he produced earlier this winter.

“Hopefully, we’re getting lucky and he’s getting good at the right time,” Larry Jones said earlier this week.

On the surface, Mark Valeski’s pedigree slants toward sprints and middle distances, but his mother, Pocho’s Dream Girl, was a 1 1/8-mile stakes horse, and Jones seems convinced that Mark Valeski can run well at distances at or beyond that of the Louisiana Derby.

“I’ve been trying to put those strong Friesan Fire-type gallops into him. We’re looking at getting him ready to go the mile-and-a-quarter,” Jones said, referring to the Kentucky Derby’s distance.

Mark Valeski raced just off the pace in the Risen Star but could be farther behind early in Sunday’s race. Hero of Order, the Risen Star pacesetter, is entered, as is stretch out sprinter Comisky’s Humor, who set a five-furlong track record earlier this meet.

Cigar Street, the 7-2 morning-line second-choice, might be positioned close to Mark Valeski – and might be his equal in raw ability. A vastly troubled fifth when favored in his Feb. 3 career debut, Cigar Street broke through with a 13 3/4-length maiden win when stretched out around two turns on March 10, a performance so powerful that his connections are stepping straight into graded stakes competition.

“He did win easy, he did come out of that last work well, and his head’s in the feed tub,” said trainer Steve Margolis, who trains Cigar Street for owners Jake Ballis and Rashard Lewis, the NBA veteran. “All systems are go, but you’ve got to step up and run against seasoned horses now.”

Z Dager, second by a nose in the Lecomte Stakes and third in the Risen Star, is an improving horse, but trainer Steve Asmussen isn’t certain Z Dager can leapfrog a horse like Mark Valeski.

“He is going to make a significant move forward, but saying that, watching Mark Valeski work with Havre de Grace makes me believe in him, and the maiden win [by Cigar Street] was incredible,” Asmussen said. “When you’re drawn in [post] 11 you’re putting a little faith in there, as well. But he has trained better all winter long.”

Mr. Bowling, coupled with Mark Valeski, won the Lecomte Stakes but finished last of 11 in the Risen Star, but Jones, who trains him as well, expects a much improved performance Sunday. California invader Rousing Sermon almost won the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity last winter, but has been less impressive on dirt than synthetic tracks, and is drawn very wide.

Shared Property was third in the Lecomte and fifth in the Risen Star, but draws a better post on Sunday and will be fitted with blinkers in an attempt to keep him closer to the pace on a dirt surface that might favor front-runners.

“I think the jury is still out on him and all these horses,” said trainer Tom Amoss. “Someone is going to emerge from this race as a real Derby contender. But it’s hard to say who that is.”


Louisiana Derby (G2), Post Time: 4:55 CT Sunday

Purse: $1,000,000; 1 1/8 miles





ML Odds


Mr. Bowling

J. Jones

R. Albarado



Mark Valeski

J. Jones

R. Napravnik



Fire Alarm

M. Mena

W. Calhoun




T. Pletcher

J. Velazquez



Finnegans Wake

D. Romans

C. Lanerie



Flashy Sunrise

D. Stewart

R. Maragh



Cigar Street

S. Margolis

S. Bridgemohan



Shared Property

T. Amoss

L. Goncalves



Arm Force

E. Harty

J. Leparoux



Comisky's Humor

R. Faucheux

R. Eramia



Z Dager

S. Asmussen

S. Sellers



Rousing Sermon

J. Hollendorfer

M. Smith



Hero of Order

G. Dorochenko

E. Martin, Jr.




J. Geier

J. Graham