01/24/2013 4:22PM

Fair Grounds: Optimizer ready for anything in Colonel E.R. Bradley


They’re back. A week after landing the Lecomte Stakes with Oxbow, trainer Wayne Lukas and jockey Jon Court return to Fair Grounds with Oaklawn-based horses for two stakes races on Saturday’s card. Optimizer is among the favorites in the Grade 3, $125,000 Colonel E.R. Bradley Handicap, while Laurie’s Rocket’s faces a more challenging task when he meets Delaunay and Gantry in the $75,000 F.W. Gaudin Stakes.

There are two other stakes on the 12-race card, the Marie Krantz for female turf route horses and the Van Berg for 3-year-old grass sprinters. The Van Berg could fall any number of ways, while the Krantz almost certainly will fall to Daisy Devine, an ultra-impressive Fair Grounds turf winner earlier in the meet.

The Krantz and the Colonel Bradley were supposed to be part of the Lecomte card Jan. 19, but, realizing early that a sodden turf course would be unsuitable for racing, Fair Grounds rescheduled the turf stakes for Jan. 26. None of the affected horsemen seemed unduly concerned about the delay; Optimizer, in particular, appears suited to handling whatever is thrown his way.

Mainly, that has been a whole lot of races: Optimizer ran in all three legs of the 2012 Triple Crown, finishing 11th, sixth, and 10th in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, and then was shifted to turf racing, making seven more post-Triple Crown starts while going to the post 14 times last year. Still, he did not appear to wear down, finishing a close, troubled fifth in the River City at Churchill and a close, troubled third in the Dec. 15 Hollywood Turf Cup following an 11th-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

Even after Optimizer’s second trip in six weeks from Kentucky to California there has been nothing like a winter vacation: Optimizer has worked three times in January in advance of the Bradley.

Eight others are entered in the 1 1/16-mile race, which will be run with the portable inner turf rail set 25 feet out on the course. Also in the Bradley are Strike Impact, Dubious Miss, and James Street, respectively the first- , third- , and fifth-place finishers in the Dec. 22 Buddy Diliberto Handicap, the first of Fair Grounds series of older-horse turf-route stakes. Strike Impact, an admirable 9-year-old, won that race by one length with a perfect trip pressing a slow pace, and there is reason to believe the Bradley could be open to a new face.

Optimizer offers one alternative avenue, but String King and Unlatch also have appeal. String King, the best Louisiana-bred grass horse going, already has won two statebred-restricted turf stakes at the Fair Grounds meet, and enters the Bradley a fresh horse after a short respite from racetrack life at a training center on the other side of Louisiana.

But the Bradley starter with the greatest upside is Unlatch, a freshly turned 4-year-old like Optimizer, but a horse with just four career starts. Unlatch has won three of them, most recently capturing the 3-year-old-restricted Woodchopper at Fair Grounds with an eye-catching move off the far turn. His margin of victory was a neck, but Unlatch was more impressive than that.

“He showed a turn of foot, made the lead, and he thought he’d done his job,” said trainer Al Stall. “We cut his blinkers back a little bit because of that last race. We’re excited about running him. He’s training like a horse that’s getting better with age.”