As he took time to participate in a national teleconference on Tuesday, trainer Larry Jones could peer out and see one of the most lavish spectacles in the world breaking out around him.
"The parades are going and it's a party down here today," the Hopkinsville native said of the Mardi Gras events from his base at Fair Grounds.
Like New Orleans itself, though, Jones doesn't need a slice of king cake or a neck full of beads to get into a celebratory mood these days. Not when he has the reigning Horse of the Year in his stable, another top filly making her mark, and a pair of Kentucky Derby hopefuls that have a chance to break up the seemingly endless parade of success rolling out of trainer Todd Pletcher's barn of late.
The two major Kentucky Derby prep races this weekend each feature a Pletcher trainee as the morning-line favorite with Algorithms the 8-5 pick in Sunday's Grade II Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park and El Padrino the 2-1 choice in Saturday's Grade II, $300,000 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds.
Jones does not have the plethora of Derby contenders Pletcher boasts, but in Risen Star contenders Mr. Bowling and Mark Valeski, he has a pair of talents that could become major players en route to the first Saturday of May.
Mr. Bowling is the more accomplished of the duo thus far, having won the Grade III LeComte Stakes by a head over fellow Risen Star entrant Z Dager at Fair Grounds in January. The son of Istan is unbeaten in two tries around two turns and figures to be the biggest challenge to El Padrino as that one seeks his first graded stakes win.
"(Mr. Bowling) is a gutsy horse. You might outrun him but you are not going to out- gut him," said Jones, who also conditions 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace and multiple graded-stakes winning filly Joyful Victory. "In the LeComte, he had enough left in the tank to kick up the momentum that Z Dager was carrying and still hold that day. We felt like we had more horse after the race, we felt there was more in the tank had we needed it. But Mr. Bowling is not going to give it to you unless he has to."
Like Mr. Bowling, Mark Valeski is owned and bred by Brereton Jones. The son of Proud Citizen is going beyond 6 furlongs for the first time but has shown more early speed than his stablemate.
After losing to eventual Grade I winner Union Rags is his career debut, Mark Valeski broke his maiden at Delaware Park and won an allowance race at Fair Grounds on Jan. 13.
Neither of the Larry Jones trainees have hit the 100 Beyer Speed Figure El Padrino earned in winning an allowance race at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 29. Both of El Padrino's career wins have come over sealed, wet tracks, however, and Jones believes there is something to be said for his horses having already proven they can handle the long Fair Grounds stretch.
"Mark Valeski is a very fast horse, he has got a good turn of foot to him and now the question is to whether he can carry his feet over the louder ground," Jones said.
While Jones will be squarely focused on his Derby hopefuls Saturday, he may be tempted to check in on how one of Havre de Grace's potential rivals handles her return to the races this weekend.
Royal Delta, winner of the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic and champion 3-year-old filly of 2011, will make her first start of the year when she faces four in the Grade III Sabin Stakes at Gulfstream Saturday.
The 11⁄16-mile Sabin is slated to be a steppingstone for Royal Delta to the $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 31. The daughter of Empire Maker has no cakewalk in front of her, though, as Grade I winner Awesome Maria and graded-stakes winner Groupie Doll are among the older girls she's going to face.
"I think we're at a slight disadvantage at a mile-and-a-sixteenth," said Bill Mott, trainer of Royal Delta. "It's a short wire turning for home and I don't think it plays into our filly's style. I don't think that's her best race ... she's a bit of a stretch runner. I don't think the conditions are the most ideal but we're running in the race that's available."
Drug ban on hold
The American Graded Stakes Committee announced Friday that it will not implement a ban of race-day medication for 2-year-old graded-stakes races in 2012.
The committee announced last August that it would not award graded status to any stakes races for 2-year-olds that allow race-day medication, specifically the anti-bleeder medication Lasix.
However, none of the jurisdictions that hold graded stakes races for juveniles have moved forward with the proposed Lasix ban — including Kentucky.
"Due to the nature of the various entities involved in implementation of rules governing racing, the policy has taken longer to implement than the committee hoped," Dr. J. David Richardson, chairman of the Committee, said in a statement.
Switch for Havre de Grace
Days after announcing that 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace would make her seasonal debut in the Grade III Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn Park on March 17, owner Rick Porter said Friday the 5-year-old mare would instead go in the New Orleans Ladies Stakes at Fair Grounds the same day.
Porter changed his mind after Fair Grounds informed him there was a mistake in determining how much weight the daughter of Saint Liam would have to carry. Havre de Grace will now tote 117 pounds, not 122.
Hansen is Gotham bound
Champion 2-year-old male Hansen will fly to New York on Wednesday for a start in next Saturday's Grade III, $400,000 Gotham.