Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots wrapped up its 151st season of racing on Sunday, March 26, having offered the richest stakes schedule in Louisiana history at $8.5 million. The pinnacle was Louisiana Derby Day on March 25, which set a single-card record for purses offered in Louisiana at $3.1 million. With 12 new stakes and a total of 65, the meet kicked off on Nov. 18-19 with the inaugural Louisiana Champions Day Preview Weekend, featuring six stakes written for horses bred in the Pelican State. The 110th running of the $1 million TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) was the highlight of the 65 stakes contested over the 80-racing day meet.
With 64 wins, Reylu Gutierrez captured the first leading rider title of his young career. The 27-year-old won many for trainer Bret Calhoun who had a banner meet and accounted for approximately half of Gutierrez’ wins. In just his second year at Fair Grounds, the rest of Gutierrez’s scores came for a host of different trainers, proving how well Gutierrez has been received by local connections. His top moment came when Southlawn posted an upset in the Fair Grounds Oaks, offering personal redemption for Gutierrez after he and his mount Hidden Connection finished a diminishing nose shy of Echo Zulu last year.
James Graham, who was denied his third consecutive title and fourth overall, finished second with 53 wins. Jareth Loveberry vied for the title most of the meet, but he missed three weeks with a fractured fibula and finished with 50 wins, tied for third with Corey Lanerie. Knocking on the door of his 5,000th career win, Lanerie made the most of his return to Fair Grounds, offering difference-making rides week in and week out. No win was more special than in the final race of the meet when he piloted a difference-making trip aboard Rocket Ship Racing’s Nosilverspoonshere to win the $75,000 Shantel Lanerie Memorial, which is named in honor of Corey’s departed wife. Though Brianne Culp lost her “bug” status in February, her 18 wins proved to be enough to win the 2022-2023 apprentice title over Treylon Albert (15) and Sophia Barandela (13).
After trailing both the fast starting and longtime leader Bret Calhoun and Brad Cox early, New Orleans native Ron Faucheux finished with a flourish to capture his third consecutive training title with 42 wins. Affectionately known as “Mr. March” following an amazing hot streak that saw his barn win 23 races between Ash Wednesday (Feb. 22) and Closing Day (March 26), Faucheux swept the $75,000 Crescent City Derby and Oaks. He also strung together five wins in a row over March 8-9.
The race for the title went down to the last day as Bret Calhoun, the early leader who was in search of his first local crown, and four time champ Brad Cox were both in striking range but instead settled for a tie for second with 37 wins apiece. Trainer Patricia West started the meet scorching hot, winning with six of her first 14 entries, including her first stakes when A G’s Charlotte took the $75,000 Big World Stakes on opening day. Justin Jeansonne had a banner meet, winning 14 races at a 25% clip. Coming off his Summer title at Evangeline Downs, trainer Shane Wilson finished in fourth with 25 wins.
“What impressed me most this meet was Ron Faucheux’s ‘March’ to the title – that hot streak was amazing,” senior producer and racing analyst Joe Kristufek said. “Equally impressive was Brad Cox unveiling ridiculous talent week after week; Big Chopper winning stakes on both surfaces, route and sprint; Touchuponastar’s dominance; Corey Lanerie’s resurgence and Reylu Gutierrez and Jareth Loveberry taking their games to the next level.”
Two milestones were reached this year, as 4-time leading trainer Brad Cox and two-time leading jockey Florent Geroux both won their 2,000th race. On Jan. 26, Cox legged up Geroux on his 2,000th winning mount, Warrant, and fittingly, it was Geroux who was onboard when Bishops Bay broke his maiden on the Feb. 18 Risen Star undercard, giving Cox win 2,000. Away from Fair Grounds last year, Geroux returned successfully, scoring with a colony-best 32% of his mounts for a total of 33 visits to the winner’s circle.
With 20 wins from 137 starts in their first full meet at Fair Grounds, L and G Racing Stable won the owners’ race, as trainer Cesar Govea saddled each score. A welcome addition to the local backstretch, L and G Racing Stable was only formed two years ago. At a 33% clip, Godolphin impressed with 13 wins, including with their homebred star-filly Pretty Mischievous. Lothenbach Stables came up big yet again with 11 wins, and in terms of winning percentage, at 67% none could surpass Mansfield Racing among owners who entered at least ten races.
The 2022-2023 meet began with unveiling the new state-of-the-art toteboard in the infield, along with a new industry-low 15% takeout structure for the 50-cent Pick 5. Two new wagers were offered with the daily $1 minimum Pick 6 (15% takeout and no-jackpot) and the Bayou Bluegrass 5, an innovative collaboration between Fair Grounds and Turfway Park combining three graded stakes from the Louisiana Derby Day card with the Bourbonette Oaks and the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3).
Since the points system began in 2013, no other prep races have produced as many Kentucky Derby starters as the Risen Star (G2) presented by Lamarque Ford-Lincoln and the Louisiana Derby, both at 33. After the stellar performances put on by 3-year-old males at Fair Grounds this meet, that total is sure to rise. At season’s end, six of the top ten and nine of the top 20 horses on the Kentucky Derby points leaderboard ran in Fair Grounds’ prep series.
Brad Cox dominated Fair Grounds’ “Road to the Kentucky Derby and Oaks,” sending out the $100,000 Gun Runner Stakes winner Jace’s Road on Dec. 26, the $200,000 Lecomte (G3) winner Instant Coffee on Jan. 2, the $400,000 Risen Star winner Angel of Empire on Feb. 18, and the $150,000 Silverbulletday Stakes presented by Fasig-Tipton winner The Alys Look on Jan. 21. With 37 wins on the meet, the Cox barn won a phenomenal 37% of their races entered.
With three of the 12 horses entered including morning line favorite Instant Coffee, Cox held a strong hand in Fair Grounds’ signature race, but it was Spendthrift Farms’ Kingsbarns who shipped in and wired the Louisiana Derby field under Flavien Prat to earn 100 points towards the “Run for the Roses.” It was the fifth Louisiana Derby win for trainer Todd Pletcher, and the first since Noble Indy took home top honors in 2015. After racing 3-year-old Eclipse Champion Epicenter through the 2021-2022 prep series, Winchell Thoroughbreds’ and Steve Asmussen teamed up with Disarm, who finished second (40 points) in the Louisiana Derby, and all but assuring a spot in the Kentucky Derby 149 starting gates.
A new partner this year, Fasig-Tipton was named the title sponsor of Fair Grounds’ 2023 series for 3-year-old fillies. The Fasig-Tipton Tremé Triple consists of the $150,000 Silverbulletday Stakes on Jan. 21, the $300,000 Rachel Alexandra (G2) on Feb. 18., and $400,000 Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) on March 25. The name of the race series is a tribute to the historic Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans that borders Fair Grounds.
As the calendar turned over to 2023, two of the most talented 3-year-old fillies in training were stabled at Fair Grounds in Godolphin’s homebred Pretty Mischievous and Gold Standard Racing Stable’s Hoosier Philly. Trained by Brendan Walsh, Pretty Mischievous rose to the top, winning both the Untapable and the Rachel Alexandra. She finished second in the Fair Grounds Oaks to Robert Masterson’s Southlawn. The filly trained by Norm Casse ascended to beat a field that included Pretty Mischievous, The Alys Look, and Hoosier Philly, earning 100 points towards the Kentucky Oaks starting gate under leading rider Reylu Gutierrez. Southlawn’s win became the crown jewel of Norm Casse’s young training career. As of meet’s end, Pretty Mischievous and Southlawn led all 3-year-olds in Kentucky Oaks points, and The Alys Look stands tall in fifth, giving Fair Grounds claim to three out of the top five Oaks-dreaming fillies.
In addition to the Louisiana Derby and Rachel Alexandra, two other G2 stakes were also contested on the meet’s big day, with Gary and Mary West’s West Will Power winning the $500,000 New Orleans Classic with Flavien Prat in tow for Brad Cox and the veteran Spooky Channel taking down the $300,000 Muniz Memorial Classic presented by Horse Racing Nation for NBS Stable, trainer Jason Barkley and jockey Joel Rosario.
The veteran Louisiana-bred sprinter Bootsie’s Galaxy led all horses with four wins (from seven tries). Fifteen horses tied with three wins apiece, with Surveillance, Oeuvre, Big Chopper all scoring stakes hat tricks. Set-hut’s Touchuponastar emerged as the top Louisiana-bred, winning both the $150,000 Louisiana Champions Day Classic and the $75,000 Star Guitar Stakes so impressively that he could be seen stepping up to face open company in the year ahead.
From hosting Rasi Harper’s “The Real Players Inside the Backstretch” over Louisiana Champions Day weekend at the beginning of the meet to putting on the Shantel Lanerie Breast Cancer Survivor Second Line on closing day, the 2022-2023 Fair Grounds meet continued the tradition of celebrating and memorializing the many members of the horse racing community who often go overlooked. On Thursday, March 23, Fair Grounds also honored the equine athletes with the third annual “New Vocations Day at the Races.” Jockey Rosie Napravnik, a four-time local champion, joined Fair Grounds personality Joe Kristufek on-air to raise money for all aspects of racehorse aftercare.
“Our 151st season was one for the books,” Fair Grounds president Doug Shipley said. “Throughout the entire season our racing team proved once again they are the best in the business. Starting with an amazing Thanksgiving celebration to kick off the season and finishing with a fairytale ending with the Shantel Lanerie Second Line celebration. There were tears on the course this year as jockey Corey Lanerie returned to Fair Grounds to take home the win in the race named to honor his beloved-by-all wife. Their daughter Brittlyn served as the Grand Marshal for the Second Line walk completing out the season with full hearts all around.”