03/28/2013 12:23PM

Fair Grounds: Optimizer goes for hat trick in Mervin Muniz

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Over soggy, over a quagmire, or over a chewed-up mess, Optimizer has running on his mind once on the grass.

“He’s a warrior,” trainer D. Wayne Lukas said of Optimizer, the emerging turf star who will be a solid favorite Saturday in the Grade 2, $400,000 Mervin Muniz Memorial Handicap on the Louisiana Derby undercard. “That son of a gun shows up every time.”

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Optimizer already has won the two Fair Grounds stepping-stones to the Muniz, its premier turf race. The 4-year-old captured the Jan. 26 Col. Bradley over a course rated good, then returned four weeks later from his Oaklawn Park winter base to take the Fair Grounds Handicap. He was the favorite in both of those Grade 3 races.

“We’re looking to go down there and pull a hat trick and win all three of them,” Lukas said. “My main concern is the turf has been getting away from them pretty badly,” a reference to the wear and tear of a four-month meet that ends Sunday.

“Obviously, we’d prefer that it be lush and green, but he’s made that trip twice already this winter and done very well. The [Bradley], it was pretty soft, and then the next one it was so deep that they all punched down about a foot. But we’re looking forward to leading him over there.”

Jon Court will be aboard Optimizer once again when he breaks from post 5 in the 1 1/8-mile Muniz, which drew nine other older horses. Perhaps his chief threat is Willcox Inn (post 3, Jimmy Graham), an earner of nearly $700,000 under the guidance of trainer Mike Stidham.

In the Fair Grounds Handicap, Willcox Inn faded to be fourth as a close second wagering choice after finding himself on the early lead, an unfamiliar position for the 5-year-old horse, who has three graded stakes wins to his credit.

“He absolutely hated that bog,” Stidham said. “He’s really trained nicely since that last race, so we’re looking for a turnaround.”

Other notables in the Muniz include Doubles Partner, a consistent stalker-type for WinStar Farm and Todd Pletcher; Amira’s Prince, an Irish-bred who has won all three of his starts, all over the Gulfstream Park turf, since coming under the care of Bill Mott; and Bim Bam, runner-up behind Optimizer in the Fair Grounds Handicap.

The Muniz, named for the longtime Fair Grounds racing official and popular New Orleanian who died in 2003, directly follows the Louisiana Derby as the 10th of 13 Saturday races. The race formerly had been known as the Explosive Bid.