11/23/2012 4:51PM

Fair Grounds notes: Sign to point to Rachel Alexandra Stakes

Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
Sign, shown winning the Pocahontas Stakes at Churchill Downs, is expected to make two starts at Fair Grounds and then proceed to the Kentucky Oaks.

NEW ORLEANS – Sign won the Pocahontas Stakes by four lengths on Oct. 28 at Churchill, and would have been heavily favored there Saturday had her connections entered Sign in the Golden Rod Stakes. But the people behind Sign have their eyes farther down the road and on a bigger prize than the Golden Rod, and in the interest of Sign’s 3-year-old campaign took a pass on racing Sign again this year.

“We’re looking at the Kentucky Oaks and plotting backward from there,” said Al Stall, who trains Sign for owners and breeders Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider.

Sign will winter at Fair Grounds and race her way toward the Kentucky Oaks here, Stall confirmed earlier this week. The plan calls for her to make her 3-year-old debut on Feb. 23 in the Rachel Alexandra Stakes and then run in the March 30 Fair Grounds Oaks.

“We’re thinking two races before the [Kentucky] Oaks,” said Stall.

Sign, by Pulpit out of Cross, debuted on Aug. 26 at Saratoga and won by almost 11 lengths in a six-furlong race. She didn’t start again until the Pocahontas, a one-turn mile that Sign easily won after being held up near the back of an eight-horse field. Rosie Napravnik rode sign in both those races.

Guidry picking his spots

Jockey Mark Guidry was born and raised in the Lafayette region of Louisiana, that hotbed of Cajun riders, so it’s surprising that Guidry has never ridden an entire racing season at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. But Guidry has his tack here now and plans to stay firmly planted at Fair Grounds throughout this meeting.

Guidry, 53 and the father of three children, has five grandchildren (three blood relatives, two by marriage) living around Lafayette right now. Over the summer and into the fall, Guidry rode at Louisiana Downs, and he is happy to stay close to his family for as much of the year as he can right now.

“When my kids were growing up, I didn’t have time for them when I was wrapped up in my career,” Guidry said. “I’m not going to miss my grandkids growing up.”

Guidry, who has won more than 5,000 races, retired from the saddle in 2007. He tried training without much success, and made a riding comeback late in 2010, though he rode just one race late in the year. Guidry won 17 races in 2011 and has had a solid 2012, winning 88 races this year from 416 mounts. At Louisiana Downs he booted home 59 winners, the fifth-highest total during the season there, despite riding fewer horses than any other jockey finishing in the top 10 by wins.

Guidry said he wants to adopt a similar approach this winter, picking his spots carefully and, for the most part, steering clear of the lowest level races. His agent, Derek Ducoing, also represents Rosie Napravnik, so there’s no pressure on Guidry to accept too many mounts.

“At this stage of the game, I don’t put too much pressure on myself. As far as something like leading rider, realistically, people want the younger riders, and they’ve got some hot riders here,” Guidry said. “We’ve done pretty well picking and choosing. I don’t want to run nine or 10 a day. Those days are gone. I’m just enjoying myself now.“

Willcox Inn may try Connally Cup

Willcox Inn, who finished a good second behind subsequent Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Wise Dan in the Grade 1 Shadwell Stakes at Keeneland in October, will winter at Fair Grounds and figures to be a participant in the major turf stakes here in 2013.

A 4-year-old, Willcox Inn got a late start to his 2012 campaign winning a July allowance race at Arlington Park before finishing eighth in the Arlington Million. His first post-Million start came in the Shadwell, in which Willcox Inn rallied from the back of the field, but Willcox Inn failed to progress on that performance when he checked in ninth in the Breeders’ Cup Mile earlier this month.

“He’s here galloping now. We might run him in the Connally,” said trainer Mike Stidham, referring to the Grade 3, $200,000 John Connally Turf Cup on Jan. 26 at Sam Houston.

That comeback race would be a logical stepping-stone to a pair of races in New Orleans, the $150,000 Fair Grounds Handicap on Feb. 26 and the $400,000 Mervin Muniz Handicap on March 30.

Catalano active opening weekend

With horses in the Woodchopper Stakes on Friday and the Pago Hop on Saturday, trainer Wayne Catalano wasted little time putting to work the Fair Grounds string he has decided to reopen this winter. Catalano, a New Orleans native who got his start in the sport at Fair Grounds, hasn’t had horses stabled here since the 2004-2005 season, when he still trained for owner Frank Calabrese.

Catalano has 25 stalls at Fair Grounds and said he planned to shuttle horses back and forth between here and his two strings in Florida, one at Palm Meadows and the other at Gulfsteam. Catalano doesn’t have horses this winter at Tampa Bay Downs, where he raced last season.

Catalano is one of several trainers to join the local colony this winter, an influx that Fair Grounds hopes will boost entries throughout the meet. Other Fair Grounds newcomers are Eric Reed, Gary Simms, and Hugh McMahon.