LaDerby: Is Track Phantom the Next Epicenter?

March 19, 2024

Track Phantom with Joel Rosario aboard coasts to the win in the LeComte. (Hodges Photography / Lou Hodges, Jr.)

By Laura Pugh

The time is here and the Road to the Kentucky Derby has entered its final stage… The Championship Round. Starting this Saturday with the Louisiana Derby, which has been one of the most productive preps in recent history, producing several top three finishers like Revolutionary, Mucho Macho Man, Nehro, Gun Runner, and most recently Epicenter.

The Louisiana Derby has been knocking on the door for its next Kentucky Derby winner, maybe this will be the year looking at the deep field that has assembled for the 2024 edition. 

1.) Triple Espresso: The speed figures for this one are cringe worthy at best, and with no real early speed, it’s hard to see this son of Omaha Beach making an impact. It’s worth noting that he’s one of two horses also entered in the Jeff Ruby Stakes at Turfway Park, so it’s possible that he will wind up scratching from this spot later this week. 

2.) Hall of Fame: Mr. On Again/Off Again was highly regarded coming into the Risen Star Stakes but finished a disappointing seventh. He got caught up in quite a bit of traffic that day, despite breaking from the middle of the field. This Saturday, he’ll break from much closer to the rail, which has me thinking he’ll get caught in just as much if not more traffic. His 10 ¼ maiden romp was visually impressive, but the horse directly behind returned to finish 7th in his next outing, and while Sir Siro (3rd) did win his next out, the final time of 1:45.11 for 1 1/16th miles is pedestrian. I think it’s very possible that Hall of Fame just isn’t talented enough to run with the best of his crop at this point. 

3.) Antiquarian: From the Pletcher contingent, Antiquarian enters the Louisiana Derby off of a one length maiden score in the slop. The time of 1:45.73 won’t impress anyone, however, on a dry surface, he managed to get within half of a length of the impressive Conquest Warrior, who is currently aiming for the Florida Derby. From what he’s shown, Antiquarian prefers to track the pace, but the three post could force him to secure the early lead. If that happens, I could see him getting bored on the lead quite easily, opening him up to the stalkers and closers in the stretch. 

4.) Agate Road: After three starts in a row on the lawn, the connections of Agate Road swapped him to the main track for a chance at Kentucky Derby glory. In his only main track start this year, Agate Road finished second to No More Time in the Sam F. Davis Stakes. Some say he was getting to No More Time in the Sam F. Davis, I say that No More Time had his measure. I think that Track Phantom is a better horse than No More Time, so while Agate Road has the looks of a very talented closer, I don’t think he’s the best one in this field. He could be good enough to nab a minor award though. It’s worth noting, that he too is entered in the Jeff Ruby as well, and considering turf success generally transfers to synthetic, he could wind up running there instead. 

5.) Catching Freedom: If you read my Kentucky Derby Top 10 Column, you know what I think of Catching Freedom and his effort in the Risen Star. That day he had quite a bit of trouble, and his late trouble was caused by the eventual winner Sierra Leone. While he does prefer to make a late bid, Catching Freedom hasn’t been farther than 5 lengths from the pace his last two starts. If he can stay out of trouble this time, I think he has a big shot coming home the winner. 

6.) Awesome Ruta: The local colt was last seen finishing sixth in the Risen Star, and to be honest, I’m surprised to see him back in this spot. He has one win and 7 starts, none in stakes company. This seems like a case of Derby Fever, and I know that can wind up being a Cinderella Story, but more often than not it just discourages the horse. 

7.) Honor Marie: This son of Honor Code is the definition of “dead closer” and “honest as they come”. He has absolutely no early speed and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him as the early trailer of the field. In the Risen Star, Honor Marie spotted the field as much as 10 ½ lengths. He wound up almost as wide as Catching Freedom in that race, which put him at even more of a disadvantage, but he was still able to run on for fifth. I have no doubt he’ll be running at the end, but I don’t think he’ll have the pace to give him the set up needed for a win. 

8.) Next Level: I’ll keep this short. I didn’t like him for the Rebel Stakes and I like him even less here. His best efforts have come when he goes wire to wire, and he doesn’t show enough consistency at the gate to make me think he’ll get that trip here. Complete toss.

9.) Real Men Violin: The McPeek trainee took a whopping five tries to break his maiden, finished second to Honor Marie in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, then finished a very well beaten eighth in the Risen Star. The problem with the Risen Star was that it was run on an off track, meaning it’s very hard to gauge just how good, or not good, those coming from it are. Were they really that lackluster, or did they just not handle the surface and the heavier kickback? In regard to Real Men Violin, I get the impression he’s a cut below. He was close several times in maidens, but took five tries, then was just outkicked by Honor Marie, who is good, but not my top choice here. 

10.) Common Defense: I didn’t like him in the Rebel, and unlike Next Level, he proved me wrong, handling the dry track with complete ease. If not for the buzzsaw called Timberlake, he would’ve been your Rebel Stakes winner. Last out, Common Defense stalked while saving ground, slipped through on the rail and nearly upset Timberlake. This time, he’ll have to come from the 10, meaning that he’s not going to be able to save as much ground, which might dampen that late kick. Even then, it is still a potent late kick for a stalker, so if his form transfers to the Fair Grounds, I see him being a big contender here. 

11.) Tuscan Gold: The Chad Brown trainee is being thrown right to the lions after an impressive maiden breaking victory by 6 ¼ lengths. The final time of 1:46 and change for the 1 1/16th distance does make me leery. With only two starts, getting parked out in the 11, and not much early speed, I can easily see Tuscan Gold getting leg weary late, after a wide trip throughout. 

12.) Track Phantom: When it comes to running at the Fair Grounds, the son of Quality Road has a record of 3-2-1-0. When it comes to running over a dry main track at the Fair Grounds, he is two for two. Track Phantom has won his races by wiring the field, and his lack of flash is reminiscent of Epicenter. While he has won his races by wiring the field, he has never given the impression of a “need the lead type”, while doing what we call “rating on the lead.” With this outer post, he could have his first chance to sit off the pace if someone else like Next Level or Antiquarian wants it. If they don’t, there is a distinct lack of committed speed. 

In both of his wins this year, Track Phantom made the lead from the far outside post, so doing so here won’t be anything new. The question will be can he stretch that speed for a 1 3/16ths, or is 1 1/8th’s his limit? Given the lack of speed, chances of a dry track, and his connections history in this spot, I think Track Phantom is the horse to beat. 

Selections: Track Phantom, Catching Freedom, Common Defense, Honor Marie

Race Summary: There is no real speed in this spot. Some stalkers, some mid-pack runners and an abundance of closers, but only two with any type of speed. Given his inside post, I can see Antiquarian going to the front with Track Phantom tracking right off his hip. In the next flight Common Defense and Catching Freedom will be lying in wait, and if either of the top two falter, barring any trouble, they’ll be the first to pounce. 

Antiquarian gives me the impression that he does better with a target, and we already know how much Track Phantom likes the Fair Grounds main course. Turning for home, I see the latter taking over with Catching Freedom making the strongest bid. Common Defense has a very strong kick, but I think a wider 1/8th of a mile longer trip will catch up with him. Honor Marie won’t get a good enough pace to win, but I think he’ll be able to run up for fourth, maybe nip third. 

Contributing Authors

Laura Pugh

Laura Pugh

Laura Pugh got her first taste of Thoroughbred racing when she watched War Emblem take the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 2002. At that...

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