Chasing Churchill Downs: The Road to the Kentucky Derby
Mar 17 2017

Chasing Churchill Downs: The Road to the Kentucky Derby

By: Andrew Alexander

Photos by Hodges Photo


For two weekends each spring, thousands of music fans from near and far descend upon the Fair Grounds Race Course—devoid of horse racing at that time—to bask in the sounds of some of the top local and national recording artists during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

For many Jazz Fest attendees, listening to Stevie Wonder, Dave Matthews, or Trombone Shorty is the only time all year they will navigate the grassy infield of the third oldest race track in the country, oblivious to the equine competition held for most of the winter and spring on the hallowed grounds in Gentilly.

“[The Fair Grounds] run over 80 days, and we run from eight to 12 races a day,” Brian Spencer, manager of communications and racing analyst at the Fair Grounds, said. “Some of those days are kind of your run-of-the-mill daily features, and on some Saturdays, we have some bigger stakes days.”

The three major stakes days that take place each winter and spring at the track are the Lecomte Stakes, Risen Star Stakes, and the Louisiana Derby. This trio of stakes serves as part of The Road to the Kentucky Derby, a series of prep races at tracks around the country in which horses earn points to qualify for the first leg of the Triple Crown at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, held on the first Saturday each May.

Each race is assigned a corresponding level of qualifying points, and the top 20 point-earning horses are allowed to enter the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby. Guest Suite, the winning horse at the mile-and-70-yard January 21 Lecomte Stakes, earned 10 qualifying points. The winner of the Risen Star Stakes on February 25 will earn 50 of the 85 possible race points, and the Louisiana Derby is worth 170 total points, with 100 for the top finisher.

While Lecomte typically serves as a “proving ground” for mostly local horses with limited experience, Spencer said that the latter two major stakes days will attract some “bigger name horses from out of town.”

“Trainers might have several horses they’re trying to qualify, and they want to keep those horses apart from each other,” Spencer explained. “We certainly see the competition increase a lot as the races start to become worth more points.”

The biggest event hosted by the Fair Grounds is unquestionably Louisiana Derby Day on April 1, centered around the track’s flagship race: the Louisiana Derby. This year marks the 104th running of the prestigious stakes and features a $1 million purse.

“Louisiana horsemen and people looking to get their horses ready for the first Saturday in May have long used the Louisiana Derby to try to get that foothold in advance of the Kentucky Derby,” Spencer said.

Aside from the eight stakes running April 1, the accompanying spectacle will be on full display as ladies donning big hats and gentlemen in seersucker suits pack the stands with mint juleps in hand.

Although the Fair Grounds’ signature event is on a smaller scale relative to the Kentucky Derby crowds at Churchill Downs, Spencer admitted that the general idea is still the same. “It’s a day full of pageantry. It’s a see-and-be-seen event where people get dressed up in their best and make plans to come out here with their family and friends,” Spencer said. “People have a really good time, have a few cocktails, and make some wagers. It’s really one of the cool days to be out at the track just to people watch, even beyond the races being so good as well.”

So, before you head out to navigate the Jazz Fest crowds this spring and sway to the rhythms of Widespread Panic or Alabama Shakes, grab some friends and check out one of New Orleans’s most exciting sporting events. You just might find yourself holding the winning ticket. 

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