03/29/2015 9:45AM

Road to the Derby analysis: Louisiana Derby

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Amanda Hodges Weir/Hodges Photography
International Star wins the Louisiana Derby on Saturday at Fair Grounds.

Grade 2, $750,000 Louisiana Derby, 1 1/8 miles, Fair Grounds, March 28, 2015
(100 Derby qualifying points for a win, 40 for second, 20 for third, 10 for fourth)

Winner: International Star
Trainer: Mike Maker
Jockey: Miguel Mena
Owner: Ken and Sarah Ramsey
Beyer Speed Figure: 98

INTERNATIONAL STAR became the first horse to win four Kentucky Derby scoring races, and he completed a sweep of the three Derby preps at Fair Grounds with this victory in the Louisiana Derby. He won the Lecomte in January and the Risen Star in February at Fair Grounds to go along with his win at age 2 in the Grey Stakes at Woodbine. All his wins at Fair Grounds have come since Miguel Mena took over as his rider. They have proved a formidable team at Fair Grounds, but the competition figures to be much, much stronger in his next start, the Kentucky Derby.

As in the Risen Star, International Star drew the outside post in a field of nine, and Mena utilized the same early tactics. He was no more than three paths wide heading into the first turn and was able to drop closer to the rail as the field advanced around that turn. He was on the rail down the backstretch and into the far turn, and as in prior starts, he showed sharp acceleration to quickly advance toward the leaders.

International Star only had to come around one horse, the pacesetting STANFORD, entering the lane. Stanford held him off for much of the way down the lane, but International Star, under heavy right-handed punishment from Mena – he hit him 25 times through the stretch – got up. He swapped over to his left lead with a sixteenth of a mile to go, an indication he was tiring, but he sure was willing.

:: ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays

What’s admirable about International Star is that will to win, his handy, cat-like quickness, and the progression he has made in recent months. His Beyer Speed Figure in this race was a career best following a career best in the Risen Star and following a career best in the Lecomte. That’s the kind of progress you want to see in a Derby contender.

But this was a hard race on him. Mena asked him for everything and more, and while he got it, it’s a fair question to ask how that will impact International Star in the Derby. International Star is a small colt. The five weeks until the Derby will be beneficial, for this had to take a lot out of him.

Stanford, who started from the rail, broke well and went for the lead. He set moderate fractions of 24.03 seconds for the quarter, 48.59 for the half, and 1:13.27 for six furlongs, leaving him fresh for the initial challenge from International Star in upper stretch. He held him off until approaching the sixteenth pole, from where International Star inched away. This was certainly a good effort for Stanford, but it’s hard to imagine him having a more comfortable trip. He won’t get an easy lead like that in the Kentucky Derby, which is a furlong farther than this race.

WAR STORY, who was third, broke better than he ever has and saved ground around the first turn while within hailing distance of the leaders. He curiously was guided off the rail down the backstretch to end up four paths wide on the turn, surrendering the spot International Star seized. He was fanned about five paths wide into the lane and was about one length behind International Star in upper stretch but lost ground through the lane to the top two. He appears a cut below at this point.

KEEN ICE, who was fourth, has a late run that was compromised by the moderate early pace. He was eighth of nine into the first turn, was taken wide down the backstretch, and was widest of all entering the far turn, followed War Story into the lane, was late to swap leads in upper stretch, but kept to his task and earned 10 points. He may fall short on points for getting into the Derby. If he does get in, he actually might be a sneaky bomber for exotics, for a hot pace that he can run into will be of benefit. He didn’t get that here.

FUSAICHI FLAME, who finished fifth, broke well and drafted in behind Stanford along the rail heading around the first turn. He lost position heading to the three-furlong pole but tried to fight back along the rail, was fourth with a furlong, but couldn’t keep up late.

ST. JOE BAY, who had been on the lead in his last four races, was rated a bit heading into the first turn, and despite the moderate pace, he wound up in the three path, outside Stanford and MR. Z. He remained three wide down the backstretch and around the far turn, got within a length of Stanford with five-sixteenths to run, then tired to finish sixth.

DEFONDO, who was seventh, had front leg wraps for this race. He trailed into the first turn, advanced while appearing rank down the backstretch to run into some traffic nearing the far turn, dropped back to last again, was taken to the rail, was on his wrong lead for some of the stretch run, and made no impact.

A DAY IN PARADISE, who was eighth, raced just behind the leaders while in traffic and being restrained around the first turn, was asked to try to keep up going into the far turn, but dropped out of contention.

Mr. Z, who finished last of nine, was just behind and outside of Stanford heading into the first turn. He remained there until the far turn, where he had to be asked to hold his position chasing Stanford, with St. Joe Bay to his outside. He had no fight at the top of the lane and was virtually eased through the lane by a merciful Kent Desormeaux. I noted in the Smarty Jones analysis that his antics were a tell that he was headed the wrong way. Mr. Z now has lost 10 straight since a debut win in June.