01/21/2017 9:47PM

Guest Suite looks to be at home in Lecomte Stakes win

Lou Hodges Jr.
Guest Suite, ridden by Robby Albarado, wins the Lecomte Stakes by 1 1/4 lengths Saturday.

NEW ORLEANS – In the 2015 Lecomte Stakes, trainer Neil Howard and owner Will Farish ran the promising 3-year-old Eagle as the favorite. Eagle, making his seasonal debut, never got into the race and finished seventh. Two years later, Howard and Farish again had the Lecomte favorite, this time in Guest Suite, a promising 3-year-old making his seasonal debut, and things turned out much better Saturday at Fair Grounds.

Guest Suite ($7.60), getting a sweet trip under Robby Albarado, stalked a strong pace, took over in midstretch, and won the Grade 3, $200,000 Lecomte by 1 1/4 lengths over Untrapped. Takeoff was another half-length back in third, with Arklow fourth by a head. Guest Suite earned 10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points, Untrapped four, Takeoff two, and Arklow one.

“We know he’s a nice horse regardless of what he does from here,” said Howard, who won the Lecomte in 2011 with Wilkinson. “Which ones of them are Derby horses? This early, who knows?”

Guest Suite was bred by Farish and Kilroy Thoroughbreds and is owned by Farish and Lora Jean Kilroy. A son of Quality Road out of the Ghostzapper mare Guest House, he was gelded at 2 before ever arriving in Howard’s barn.

“He had a moment or two growing up, but I think he’s over most of that,” Howard said.

Guest Suite won his maiden second out in a two-turn Keeneland maiden race last fall. His last two starts of 2016 came in one-turn Churchill miles, a third-place finish behind leading Kentucky Derby prospect McCraken and a 6 1/4-length first-level allowance win Nov. 26. Shortly thereafter, Guest Suite arrived at Fair Grounds, got a little breather, and began preparing for his 3-year-old campaign.

“He’s had a great schedule, hasn’t missed a beat, and he’s trained wonderfully down here,” said Howard.

Howard said he had tried to “walk a fine line” preparing Guest Suite for the Lecomte, wanting to put his charge in a position to win while leaving room for improvement in more important races.

“If he wasn’t wound up like an eight-day clock for this race, that could bode well,” said Howard.

The Lecomte, race 11 of 12, was run under foreboding skies with lightning flickering on the horizon. There had been no significant precipitation since early Saturday morning, but when rain fell at about 7:30 a.m., the track surface had not been sealed. The dirt got soaked and never dried out, the track maintenance crew sealing it before the first race and never opening it up. 

Over the saturated surface, Phat Man was sent hard for the lead from the rail and was joined into the first turn by Running Mate, the pair opening up on the rest of the field and setting fast splits of 23.42 seconds for the first quarter-mile and 46.37 to the half. Takeoff, who broke from post 10, was perched wide in third, followed by Pat On the Back, who was wider still. Untrapped raced behind horses and toward the inside, and Guest Suite, who was sixth at the half-mile, found himself stalking from a lovely position into the far turn.

Albarado moved gently forward around the bend while staying in the clear, reached the leaders before the quarter pole while keeping Untrapped stuck behind the tiring front-runners, and Guest Suite, handling smoothly, glided to the front. Three-quarters went in 1:12.19, Guest Suite had the lead after a mile in 1:38.84, and he crossed the finish comfortably in front, stopping the timer in 1:43.20 for one mile and 70 yards.

“We had high expectations for him after his Keeneland race,” said Albarado, who won his 4,999th race. “He’s showing it now. He’s growing up to be the consummate professional. He’s a talented horse, a smart horse. He makes it easy.”

Untrapped, a Trappe Shot colt making his third start, his first since November, and his first around two turns, ran well to finish second. Jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. had to wait while stuck behind the fading pacesetters in upper stretch, then came around horses once Guest Suite had cleared him.

“I loved how he stayed on for his first two-turn race,” said trainer Steve Asmussen.

Untrapped had been penciled in for the Smarty Jones Stakes last week at Oaklawn before he got stuck here when the backstretch was quarantined because of a viral outbreak. If his connections were still to pursue the Oaklawn route, Untrapped could go to the Southwest Stakes on Feb. 20.

Guest Suite is a likely starter in the Risen Star here Feb. 25, as is third-place Takeoff, who held on decently while facing winners for the first time and chasing the strong Lecomte pace.

“It set up for a closer today,” said assistant trainer David Carroll.

Fourth-place Arklow, still a maiden, turned in a solid performance. He lacks exceptional acceleration and might like more distance but continued on gamely when short of room in deep stretch as Untrapped drifted into his path. Shareholder Value was a one-paced fifth and was followed by Phat Man, Tip Tap Tapizar, Marco Mischief, Running Mate, Totality, and Pat On the Back.

Howard was relaxed and affable as Guest Suite was unsaddled and led back through the mud to his barn. Unlike two years ago, his horse had run to expectations.

“I’m thrilled,” he said. “It’s the first step on a long road. We’ll see what happens.”