03/30/2012 2:36PM

Fair Grounds: Smart Bid attempts repeat in Muniz

Hodges Photography/Chris Bennett
Smart Bid, with Edgar Prado up, wins the New Orleans Handicap.

Last year in the Mervin Muniz Jr. Memorial, the Final Four were separated by margins of a nose, head, and neck. Smart Bid, ridden by Edgar Prado, beat the buzzer by getting to the line first in a wild scramble truly befitting a horse-racing version of March Madness.

For the 20th running of the Grade 2, $400,000 Muniz, which goes as the ninth race Sunday on the closing-day card at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, Smart Bid and Prado are back, and it would not be surprising if a similarly crazy theme were reprised. Eleven of the better turf horses in North America have convened for this 1 1/8-mile fixture, with Smart Bid being granted status as a tepid morning-line favorite on the heels of another narrow victory, this one in the Grade 3 Fair Grounds Handicap five weeks ago.

Trained by Graham Motion for owner-breeder George Strawbridge Jr., Smart Bid will start from post 4 in the Muniz. While rarely overpowering, Smart Bid, a 6-year-old Pennsylvania-bred, has proven remarkably steady throughout his 20-race career, and it is that consistency that makes him one of the top contenders here. Motion, incidentally, will be watching from Dubai.

Perhaps the top challenge can come from the West Coast shipper, Willyconker, whose latest outing resulted in a 10-1 upset in the Grade 1 Kilroe Mile on March 3 at Santa Anita. Trained by Doug O’Neill, the Irish-bred gelding clearly has come to peak form after being claimed last summer at Del Mar for $40,000. Joel Rosario has the mount from post 1.

There certainly is precedent for California connections to capture the Muniz, as it was done previously by such Hall of Fame trainers as Ron McAnally, Neil Drysdale, and the late Bobby Frankel (twice).

Among the fringe players in this renewal of the Muniz are Slow Pace, who retains Javier Castellano in making his second North American start; Mr. Vegas, the expected front-runner who won the Grade 3 Colonel Bradley earlier in the meet before being caught on the wire by Smart Bid in the Fair Grounds Cap; and Papaw Bodie, another former claimer coming off a victory in the Grade 3 Connelly at Sam Houston.

Slow Pace was a fast-closing second as the favorite in his stateside debut, a Gulfstream Park turf allowance. The Kentucky-bred gelding comes well-drawn Sunday in post 2.

“In his last race he was really flying late,” said Pletcher, who teamed with Castellano to win the Muniz two years ago with Blues Street. “He just ran out of time.”

The balance of the Muniz field is Wilkinson, Swift Warrior, Casino Host, Suntracer, Mister Marti Gras, and Joinem.

The Muniz is named for the garrulous and immensely popular man who served for many years as the Fair Grounds director of racing. The race had been known as the Explosive Bid until being renamed in his honor the year after his 2003 death.