03/27/2012 4:31PM

Fair Grounds: Mark Valeski has brisk work for Louisiana Derby

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Alexander Barkoff/Hodges Photography
Mark Valeski works five furlongs on Tuesday at Fair Grounds in the fastest time of 14 works at the distance that day.

NEW ORLEANS – Mark Valeski did nothing in a Tuesday morning workout to suggest he isn’t a deserving favorite in Sunday’s $1 million Louisiana Derby, breezing a brisk five furlongs in 1:00.60 under race-rider Rosie Napravnik. The drill earned a bullet, though Tuesday was a light work day at Fair Grounds, with only 14 horses posting five-furlong breezes.

Mark Valeski was the second horse to work Tuesday following the daily renovation break, coming onto the track just past 8:30 accompanied by two ponies, one ridden by trainer Larry Jones, the other by his wife and assistant trainer, Cindy Jones. After backtracking from the six-furlong gap to the finish wire, Mark Valeski stopped only briefly before turning counterclockwise and going back the way he had come, this time at a swifter tempo. Mark Valeski broke off smoothly and came past the wire with good energy while under no real encouragement from Napravnik.

“I loved the way he came home,” Larry Jones said about a half-hour after the work.

Sore shins limited Mark Valeski’s 2-year-old campaign to a pair of starts, and a minor illness after shipping to Fair Grounds in early November might have kept him from racing earlier in the Fair Grounds meet, but Mark Valeski announced his presence with a strong first-level sprint allowance win on Jan. 13 before coming within a nose of El Padrino while second in the Feb. 25 Risen Star, his stakes and two-turn debut. The period since that performance has given Mark Valeski’s connections the firm idea they have a Kentucky Derby contender on their hands.

“I gallop him most of the week, and I loved the way he came out of the last work before this one,” said Jones.

Jones said following Monday’s Louisiana Derby post position draw that Mark Valeski, a Brereton Jones-owned homebred by Proud Citizen, had gained fitness since the Risen Star.

“I think he can run better. I thought he was a little overweight last time for his first time going long,” Jones said.

Mark Valeski will walk the shed row one day before returning to the track for a jog or a gallop Thursday.

Asmussen pair hit track

Steve Asmussen’s horses for Sunday stakes races here, Nehro and Z Dager, both turned in easy half-mile workouts early Tuesday morning. Both horses worked alone (Shaun Bridgmohan was aboard Nehro) and were timed in 50.20 seconds.

“Just a smooth half-mile for both of them” assistant trainer Darren Fleming said.

Three-year-old Z Dager remains eligible for a first-level allowance race after four career starts but figures to be no worse than third or fourth choice in the $1 million Louisiana Derby. A Mizzen Mast colt, Z Dager won a two-turn maiden race in December, finished second by a nose in the Jan. 21 Lecomte, and was third, beaten a little more than five lengths, in the Feb. 25 Risen Star.

“He’s improved and stepped up since his maiden race,” Fleming said. “He’s trained a little better every day since his maiden win.”

Nehro will be part of a deep, strong field in the New Orleans Handicap, and has a good chance to come forward after easily winning a first-level allowance race on Feb. 25, his first start since the 2011 Belmont Stakes.

“He bounced back really quick from that race,” Fleming said. “I think it was a perfect prep.”

Hoops dreams come through

Fair Grounds is preparing for an influx of out of-town patrons for Sunday’s card, which was purposely situated between the national semi-final games of the NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball championship Saturday and the final game Monday.

And the influx could be substantial.

One of the semifinal games, which will be played at the New Orleans Superdome, pits the University of Louisville against the University of Kentucky, and those two fan bases figures to generate a greater possible number of racing patrons for Sunday’s card than would have been the case with any other combination of teams.

“We had a pipe dream of Louisville or Kentucky making it to the Final Four,” said Fair Grounds vice president assistant general manager Eric Halstrom. “To have both is very special.”

Halstrom said about 8,000 patrons attended the 2011 Louisiana Derby card, and that Fair Grounds estimates it might get an additional 3,000 fans because of the Final Four. The track, Halstrom said, can comfortably accommodate 10,000 to 12,000 people, but beyond that, things could get tricky in terms of parking, seating, betting, and, especially, concessions.

“We’re at red alert, emergency status as far as food and drink,” Halstrom said.

Halstrom said Fair Grounds considered limiting advertising for the Sunday program out of concern for overcrowding, but in the end decided to attempt to attract as many fans as possible.

“I’d say we look at this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said.

◗ Friday’s marathon 18-race card begins at 12:40 p.m. and has a scheduled final post time of 9:45, and – believe it or not – a 10-cent pick 18 is being offered. A 10-cent base bet using two horses in every race costs a mere $26,214.40. There is a mandatory payout on the pick 18 going to the tickets that have the most winners.