03/28/2013 2:47PM

Fair Grounds: Mark Valeski needs best effort to beat quality New Orleans Handicap lineup

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NEW ORLEANS – The week of the Risen Star Stakes 13 months ago here at Fair Grounds, trainer Larry Jones opined that although Mr Bowling was the more highly regarded of his two horses going into that race, he believed Mark Valeski, handled properly, would turn out to be the better of the two, even though he had yet to run two turns, or in a stakes race.

That go-slow approach caused Jones to keep Mark Valeski out of the 2012 Kentucky Derby, even though he had gone on to finish second in both the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby. Mark Valeski instead went to the Peter Pan, which he won, but he then suffered a knee chip. As a result, Jones gave Mark Valeski a lengthy vacation.

Now, all that time and patience is starting to pay off. Mark Valeski returned from an eight-month layoff to run second in the Louisiana Handicap here on Jan. 19, then captured the Grade 3 Mineshaft Handicap on Feb. 23 after an eventful trip.

He will need to raise his game further on Saturday in the Grade 2, $400,000 New Orleans Handicap, because the one-two finishers from the Gulfstream’s Grade 1 Donn Handicap, Graydar and Bourbon Courage, are here, along with the venerable Flat Out, who was beaten as the favorite in the Donn while making his first start since a third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“This is his toughest race, bar none,” Jones said.

Mark Valeski never has finished worse than second in five starts here, and he has trained strongly for this race. Although Rosie Napravnik, his regular rider, will not ride him on Saturday because she will be at Gulfstream to ride Shanghai Bobby in the Florida Derby, she worked him on Monday, when he went five furlongs in 58.20 seconds, the fastest time of 16 at the distance.

“Rosie said he’s had good works, and great works, but that he’d never worked like that,” said Jones, who tabbed James Graham to pinch-hit in the New Orleans Handicap. “He hasn’t come into a race any better.”

Mark Valeski has been prone to lose shoes in races, so Jones said he is switching to glue-on shoes for this race.

Graydar crushed his rivals with a front-running score in the Donn, winning by three lengths in his stakes debut and only the fourth start of his career. The New Orleans Handicap, like the Donn, is at 1 1/8 miles, and, as in the Donn, Graydar will make a run for it.

Graydar breaks from the outside in the field of eight, so “it’s a pretty clear-cut strategy with him,” said his trainer, Todd Pletcher.

Graydar picks up five pounds off his Donn win and carries high weight of 120 pounds. Flat Out drops two pounds off the Donn, so it’s a seven-pound swing in favor of Flat Out, who has won both his starts at Fair Grounds.

Also 2 for 2 here is Bourbon Courage, who began his career here with two wins last year. He finished three lengths behind Graydar in the Donn.

“He came out of that race in good shape and breezed really well there at Fair Grounds,” his trainer, Kellyn Gorder, said by phone from Kentucky on Thursday. “He’s always liked that track quite a bit.”

Macho Macho is making his first start since finishing second in the Pennsylvania Derby in September. He has since been sold privately to Prince Faisal bin Khalid bin Abdulazi of Saudi Arabia. Last year, Macho Macho beat Bourbon Courage in the West Virginia Derby.

The vastly improved Cool Street, a maiden when this meet began Thanksgiving Day, rallied strongly for second behind Mark Valeski in the Mineshaft in his fifth start of this meet. The race shape was against him in the Mineshaft. He should have faster fractions to run into this time.

Majestic Harbor, second to Cool Street in a second-level allowance on Feb. 2, subsequently won at that condition last time out March 1.
The longshot Dreaming Blue is making his graded-stakes debut. He was second in the Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston in his last start.

An earlier version of this article misstated Mark Valeski's finish position in the Louisiana Handicap. He finished second, not first.