Louisiana Downs Race Report: Essence of Hope

Louisiana Downs Race Report: Essence of Hope
Photo: Natalie Ardoin
Essence of Dubai captures Super Derby XXIII.
This article appeared in the Sep 28 issue of The Blood-Horse
By Gary West -- Events often overtake intentions. When Edward J. DeBartolo created the Super Derby in 1980 for his Louisiana Downs, he intended it to be a late-season showdown for the top 3-year-olds in the nation. And although its name might have been a touch hyperbolic, even arrogant, the Super Derby indeed became a highlight on the racing calendar.

The Super Derby's all-time roster is rife with the names of classic winners and champions, such as Alysheba, Unbridled, Sunny's Halo, Temperence Hill, Gate Dancer, Concern, Precisionist, Awesome Again, and Editor's Note. Only two years ago, just as Sunday Silence had done 11 years earlier, Tiznow won the Super Derby on his way to winning the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) and earning Horse of the Year honors.

Ten years ago, as Louisiana Downs' handle began to slip, the Super Derby purse, once among the nation's richest, dropped from $1 million to $750,000. Five years ago, the track beset by competition from riverboat casinos, the purse tumbled again, to $500,000. And this year, in a concession to modernity and equine frailty, officials shortened the distance of the race, from the classic 11Ž4 miles to 11Ž8 miles. In other words, what once aspired to be Super settled for ordinary: just another good stakes with a few good horses, a derby more superfluous than super.

None of the eight horses in Super Derby XXIII (gr. II), run Sept. 21, were candidates or possibilities to advance to the Breeders' Cup Classic. The Empire Classic maybe, or the Louisiana Champions Day Classic perhaps.

Tom Albertrani, assistant to trainer Saeed bin Suroor, said the Godolphin team was lowering its sights--in other words, revising expectations downward--by sending Essence of Dubai to Bossier City, La. And even after Essence of Dubai won by 31Ž2 lengths, Albertrani conceded the regally bred son of Pulpit and Epitome was probably a "notch below" top horses and unlikely to confront them in the near future.

Essence of Dubai, who was purchased for $2.3 million as a yearling, drew clear of Walk in the Snow, who was purchased as part of a three-horse package for $5,000, in the run through the Louisiana Downs stretch, with A.P. Five Hundred a head back in third at the wire. They ran the 1-1/8 miles in a procession, with virtually no change in order among the top trio.

Jockey Jorge Chavez hustled Essence of Dubai, the 5-2 favorite, to the lead at the start but kept the colt in the two or three path through a casual opening half-mile of :47.96 and six furlongs of 1:12.42. From his No. 6 post position, Walk in the Snow, a 30-1 shot whose two stakes victories had been against Louisiana-bred company, darted to the rail in the first turn, and A.P. Five Hundred stalked the top pair from the outside.

Chavez never had an anxious moment, as Essence of Dubai completed the new Super Derby distance in 1:49.43. It was a modest clocking for the day; then again, after such sleepy fractions, a rapid time was impossible. Compromised by the slow pace, The Judge Sez Who, the Oklahoma Derby (gr. III) winner, rallied for fourth, followed by Thunder Days and Private Emblem.

Essence of Dubai had not won since the UAE Derby (UAE-II) in March and never in his 11-race career had he found himself on the early lead. He apparently enjoyed the new strategy and especially the pace, for "he kicked home hard," according to Chavez.

Albertrani explained that it was all part of a plan, instructing Chavez to send Essence of Dubai from the gate quickly. Essence of Dubai had flashed a modicum of early speed while finishing fourth in the Jim Dandy (gr. II) and even more while running second in the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. III).

"He came out of the gate running," Albertrani said about the race in Pennsylvania, "and that was the first time he showed any kind of enthusiasm. And it didn't look like there was much speed in here; so we told Jorge to go for it."

A crowd of 15,089 watched the Super Derby, up from 14,200 a year ago, and among them was Anthony Sanfilippo, the central division president for Harrah's. One of the largest casino operators in the world, Harrah's, with a group of local investors, awaits finalization and regulatory approval of its purchase of the Bossier City racetrack. Plans call for the installation of slot machines by next summer and for more than $80 million in improvements.

Sanfilippo said he intends to see Louisiana Downs become the premier racetrack of the South. Maybe the Super Derby isn't just an annual reminder of great racing past, but a suggestion of racing potential. And maybe, just maybe, events can catch up with new intentions.

(Chart, Equibase)

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