Before thousands of music fans make their annual spring pilgrimage to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots will be home to another set of talented performers throughout the winter and spring.
Instead of finding performers using a microphone or instrument, the equine athletes compete upon the dirt track from late November to the end of March, battling for the opportunity to join the elites that make up the field of 20 horses at the Kentucky Derby—the first leg of the Triple Crown at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky—held on the first Saturday each May.
Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots is home to three major stakes races: the LeComte Stakes, Risen Star Stakes, and the Louisiana Derby, which serve as part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby. Horses qualify for the Kentucky Derby by earning points in the various prep races across the country, including the trio of races in Gentilly.
The horse Instilled Regard earned 10 qualifying points for a first-place finish at the January 13 LeComte Stakes, while second-place finisher Principe Guilherme (pronounced “Prince-ee-peh Gee herme”) picked up four points.
The series of races in New Orleans increase in distance, purse size, and possible points as the season progresses. The winner of the Risen Star Stakes in February took home 50 of the 85 possible race points, while the Louisiana Derby winner on March 24 will earn 100 of 170 possible points. In addition to the 170 qualifying points at the Louisiana Derby, horses will be competing for a portion of the $1 million purse, with $600,000 for the winner.
Joe Kristufek, Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots racing analyst, says usually 30 points is the benchmark to qualify for one of the 20 spots in the Kentucky Derby. “Basically, if you win the Risen Star, you’re going to have enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby,” Kristufek says. “And if you win or run second in the Louisiana Derby, you’re going to have enough points.”
Kristufek, who also serves as a racing analyst for Churchill Downs, says that horsemen love racing at the Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots because of the composition of the track, the spring-time climate in New Orleans, and the long stretch, which serves as an excellent test for young horses leading up to the Kentucky Derby.
While most tracks around the country have a stretch between 1,000 and 1,100 feet, the Fair Grounds boasts a stretch over 1,340 feet. Kristufek says that extra football-field distance is a great prep to gauge a horse’s ability to handle Churchill Downs, whose stretch measures over 1,200 feet.
While Instilled Regard and Principe Guilherme emerged as early Kentucky Derby contenders following impressive LeComte Stakes performances, Kristufek says another horse to watch is Givemeaminut, who was sired by legendary Louisiana race horse Star Guitar.
Whichever horses emerge as contenders for Churchill Downs will be battle-tested following the three major stakes races at the Fair Grounds this year. The increasing distances of the three events allow the horses to develop stamina and overcome adversity as they prepare for the most famous horse race in the world.
Kristufek compares horses to any great athlete when evaluating the combination of talent and experience. “Raw talent is the foundation of success, but experience is what gets you to that next level, and the same can be said for horses,” he says.
Although nothing can prepare a horse for the massive spectacle at the Churchill Downs, which attracts over 170,000 attendees each year, the Louisiana Derby is still an electric atmosphere.
“It’s not only a racing event, but it’s a social event,” Kristufek says. “A lot of racing fans will travel from different parts of the country to come [to New Orleans] because it’s such a huge horse race.”
While the roar of the crowd cheering on the equine competitors may sound slightly different than the masses yelling for their favorite headliner at the Acura Stage at Jazz Fest, the scene will be no less riveting for those in attendance.
Photos by Hodges Photo