A Day at the Races

05:11 March 21, 2016
By: David Lippman

103rd Louisiana Derby Commences March 26

Down the stretch they come. With them, the rolling thunder created by some of the fastest horses in the country and a high-stakes end to the 2015-16 season at the Fair Grounds.

The 103rd Louisiana Derby promises to be another exciting capstone to the local racing season. “We had another encouraging start to the season even before it began,” said Fair Grounds Rain Analyst Brian Spencer. “Stall applications were through the roof and that has been reflected in our field sizes. We were fortunate early on to benefit from some excellent weather until the end of December, so that allowed us to start the meet off on the right foot.”

Derby Day is Saturday, March 26. The Louisiana Derby will be the eighth race of the day at the Fair Grounds, and the combination of city and sport makes it a spectacle worthy of your social calendar.

“There is a different atmosphere as everyone gets dressed up to make it a real event,” Spencer said. “And there is something in the air, a sort of buzz, that you don’t find on regular days because we are running so many stakes races that could produce the next big thing. It’s a different kind of energy.”

The Louisiana Derby is nationally significant because it is the last major test before the Kentucky Derby.

The entire sport of kings has felt a different kind of energy since last summer, when American Pharoah won the Triple Crown. “I think for many people, it reignited the idea that any horse could possibly be ‘that’ horse,” Spencer explained. “Because now we know it’s still possible for that kind of horse to exist and that adds some excitement to the upcoming season’s Triple Crown Trail.”

The Louisiana Derby is nationally significant because it is the last major test before the Kentucky Derby. The gap is six weeks this year, compared to five in years past, so some of the biggest trainers in the sport bring their three-year-olds to New Orleans to see if they can compete for the biggest prizes in racing.

Not only is it the last test of the spring, but the Louisiana Derby is also one of the most similar to the three gems of the Triple Crown. The dirt track at the Fair Grounds stretches 1 1/8 miles, which is unique among top-tier stakes races and a good approximation for the 1 1/4 mile long track at Churchill Downs.

The extra week of rest could give the victor a better shot at winning the Kentucky Derby, too. Only two horses have followed a win in New Orleans, with another in the Kentucky Derby, and none since 1996.

“There have been other prep races that have produced lots of Kentucky Derby winners, but also other preps that have had similar records to the Louisiana Derby,” Spencer mentioned. “On the flip-side, our three-year-old fillies have been dominant in the Kentucky Oaks for over a decade now, so it may just be an anomaly.”

The first Louisiana Derby was run in 1894 and found its permanent home at the Fair Grounds in 1932. The purse for the 1990 running was only $150,000. This year, the horses will compete for a share of $1 million (with another $1.3 million up for grabs in the day’s earlier races).

Black Gold was the first horse to claim both the Louisiana and Kentucky derbies in 1924, with Grindstone being the only other horse to accomplish that feat. Risen Star, whose sire was the legendary Secretariat, is the only Louisiana Derby winner to win two legs of the Triple Crown, finishing first at both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. But for all the history of the event, Spencer says the 2015 edition was one of the most special.

“I loved International Star’s win last season,” Spencer said. “He finished a sweep of our three-year-old graded stakes races, and his owner (Ken Ramsey) was such a fun interview in the winner’s circle, having won his second Louisiana Derby in a row and making sure everyone knew it!”

The Fair Grounds have built on the success of the 2014-15 season, the buzz surrounding American Pharoah and our warm winter to pack the stands this season. “I have definitely noticed some larger crowds around the paddock,” Spencer stated. “So people are taking advantage of that weather to get outside and get up close to our great athletes.”

International Star and 2015 fifth-place finisher Fusaichi Flame are both offspring of Fusaichi Pegasus, the winner of the 2000 Kentucky Derby. Keen Ice, who finished fourth last year, is the colt of Curlin, the most awarded horse of all time. The 2016 Louisiana Derby will attract the same level of talent as the season comes down to the wire.

“It’s just a special day of racing,” Spencer said. “And if anyone has ever been out to the track for a regular race day, but not for a major stakes day like Louisiana Derby Day, they’re definitely missing out.” 

Sign Up!