Purses Raised Three Times During Banner Meet
New Orleans (March 29, 2021) – Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots wrapped up the 149th season of racing on Sunday, March 28, and while times were a bit more trying because of the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, simulcast business was exceptionally strong due to the tremendous support from both horseman and bettors alike. The meet, which kicked off with the traditional Thanksgiving Day opener on November 26, included 76 racing days and it was highlighted, as always, by the 108th running of the $1 million TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2).
“It was a meet like no other but we are extremely proud of everyone who came together to put out a great product on a day-in, day-out basis,” Fair Grounds senior director of racing Jason Boulet said. “We are extremely grateful to the horseman and our fans and bettors for their continued support throughout the meet.”
The meet reached its zenith on March 20, when the Louisiana Derby highlighted a robust 14-race card that included eight stakes. Known as “the big three” for their accomplishments at the meet, Lecomte (G3) winner Midnight Bourbon, Risen Star (G2) victor Mandaloun, and Proxy, who was the runner-up in both of those races, would meet again in the Louisiana Derby, but it was Roadrunner Racing, Boat Racing, and William Strauss’ California invader Hot Rod Charlie who would post the gate to wire victory for trainer of record Leandro Mora (Doug O’Neill). The Oxbow colt earned 100 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve in the process.
The co-featured TwinSires.com Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) once again played out to be a key prep for the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1). Carded one race prior to the Louisiana Derby, the Fair Grounds Oaks was billed as the battle between budding rivals in OXO Equine’s Travel Column, trained by Brad Cox, and Stonestreet Stables’ homebred Clairiere, trained by Steve Asmussen. The pair had split their previous two encounters, with Travel Column taking the Golden Rod (G2) at Churchill and Clairiere turning the tables in locally run Rachel Alexandra (G2) in February. Travel Column got the jump on Clairiere to win the Fair Grounds Oaks, and the duo once again ran one-two in what was a sure precursor to the Kentucky Oaks.
In a race that brought that much more of a national scope to one of the biggest days of the year in New Orleans, Robert and Lawana Low’s Colonel Liam, arguably the best turf course in the country off his win in the Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1), invaded to take the Muniz Memorial Classic (G2) for trainer Todd Pletcher.
The Louisiana Derby Day card also marked the return of a small number of fans to Fair Grounds for the first time in over a year as the effects of COVID-19 forced the track to conduct live racing with no patrons, as only essential employees, licensed horsemen (including owners) and credentialed media were allowed on track. A select group of tickets were sold to the general public and marked a welcome, albeit brief, return of the fans who have long supported local racing and made Fair Grounds one of the best racing venues in the country.
Trainer Ron Faucheux won his coveted first ever trainer’s title with 40 wins, while dethroning four-time defending champion and Eclipse Award winner Brad Cox (37 wins) in the process. Both 11-time local titlist Tom Amoss (35), as well as Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen (33), made runs at Faucheux, with the former holding the lead for much of the meet, while Joe Sharp completed the top-5 with 23 wins. Faucheux scored a stakes win with Monte Man in the Louisiana Champions Day Sprint in December and in the end the New Orleans native was too strong from start-to-finish to secure a title that clearly hit close to home.
“It means the world,” Faucheux said. “Being here, being from New Orleans and coming to this track since I was a child. This is what it’s all about. We have so many people that put their faith in us. I have some great owners. I have the best help. This is my track; this is the best track in the country, as far as I’m concerned, and it’s a privilege and an honor to be a part of it.”
Cox, who was in contention for a five-peat until the penultimate day of racing, left with plenty of hardware of his own. He won the Oaks with Travel Column and the Risen Star (G2) Presented by Lamarque Ford-Lincoln with Mandaloun, along with three other stakes. Asmussen had a strong meet as well, winning six stakes. Clairiere’s win in the Rachel Alexandra was the barn highlight, though Midnight Bourbon flashed his Kentucky Derby form when he won the Lecomte (G3) in January to kick off the local 3-year-old stakes series. Asmussen also posted his remarkable 100thcareer Fair Grounds stakes when Joy’s Rocket captured the Letellier Memorial on December 19.
James Graham not only repeated to win the jockey’s title for the third time, but he obliterated his total of 63 wins last year, posting a seismic 88 on the board to hold off Adam Beschizza (85), with Mitchell Murrill (73) nabbing a podium finish as well. Colby Hernandez (69) bested his brother Brian (56) to round out the top-5.
“It means everything,” Graham said. “We kept digging away and plowing through and doing what we had to do. My stock ran really good this year and everything ran accordingly. It’s been a fantastic meet. You can’t race anywhere better in the wintertime; Fair Grounds is the best. I’m over the moon and ecstatic.”
Beschizza, buoyed by eight stakes wins, led all jockeys in purses earned with $3,115,764, edging Graham, who checked in with $2,996,153. Brian Hernandez Jr. and Florent Geroux also enjoyed strong meets with seven stakes wins apiece.
The owners’ race went down to the wire as well, with Godolphin edging Chester Thomas’ Allied Racing Stable 13-12, with End Zone Athletics checking in third with 11. Maggi Moss (9) was fourth, with Evelyn Benoit’s Brittlyn Stable, Wayne T. Davis (8), Whispering Oaks Farm, and Winalot Racing rounding out the top-5 with eight wins apiece.
Godolphin led in purses won with $767,440, with the heavy lifting coming from Maxfield, who scored stakes wins in the Tenacious in December and Louisiana (G3) in January for trainer Brendan Walsh. In addition, their Proxy was second in the in the Lecomte and Risen Star, and fourth in the Derby, for trainer Mike Stidham.
Twelve horses won at least three races at the meet, with All Fact and Treys Midnight Moon leading the way with four each. Big Time, Dalika (Ger), Elle Z, Logical Myth, Maxfield all won two stakes at the meet.
On Saturday, February 27, Fair Grounds hosted “New Vocations Day at the Races”. Hosted on the simulcast show by retired jockey Rosie Napravnik, a four-time local champion, and Fair Grounds personality Joe Kristufek, the event was created in order to raise the awareness of all aspects of racehorse aftercare. In addition to on-line donations, several jockeys, trainers and owners contributed a percentage of that day’s earnings, and over $8,000 was raised to help support the Louisiana division of New Vocations.
Both Handle and betting support were strong from Opening Day to Closing Day, no doubt helped by the elimination of the Black Gold 5, a jackpot Pk5 bet which was replaced by a traditional early and late Pk5, which were welcomed by handicappers. As a result, from the strong simulcast handle, management was able to raise purses 10% across the board three separate times at the meet, which only strengthened an already sterling local product. And while the often-unpredictable local weather made turf racing a challenge, racing secretary Scott Jones was more than happy with the end result, while eagerly looking ahead to a milestone 150th season next November.
“We would like to thank all the horsemen for their continued support which makes Fair Grounds one of the premier winter destinations and I’m looking forward to our 150th season,” Jones said. “Considering it was one of the wettest winters in New Orleans and all the other challenges, handle was very strong and we were able to raise purses three times at the meet.”