Fair Grounds opens with salty renewal of Thanksgiving 'Cap
General admission on Thanksgiving Day is free, as it is for most of the 84-day season, which continues with live racing at least four days per week through March 31. The meet is highlighted by the milestone 100th running of Fair Grounds' signature race, the Grade 2, $1 million Louisiana Derby, on March 30.
The opening-day program features the 87th running of the Thanksgiving Handicap. The six-furlong sprint for the fastest older horses on the grounds carries a six-figure purse of $100,000 for the first time ever.
Topping the quality field of seven is defending champion Gantry, who was last seen finishing 11th in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. The Ron Faucheux trainee figures to be happier back at Fair Grounds, where he is perfect from three starts. Gantry, who edged Cash Refund in a thrilling photo-finish in the 2011 Thanksgiving, went on to sweep the F.W. Gaudin Memorial and Duncan F. Kenner last meet. Over the summer, he romped by five lengths in the Grade 2 Smile Sprint Handicap on Summit of Speed Day at Calder.
Fair Grounds regular Cash Refund is back to try to avenge his trio of losses to Gantry here during the 2011-12 season. The Steve Margolis charge, who turned the Gaudin/Kenner double in 2010, returns from a nearly six-month layoff in this spot. Cash Refund has not raced since fading to sixth in the Grade 3 Aristides at Churchill Downs on June 2.
The majority of Fair Grounds stakes races are run on five banner days, two of which are in the early weeks of the season.
Louisiana Champions Day on December 8 comprises 11 stakes for Louisiana-breds worth $1.1 million. The first 3,000 fans on Louisiana Champions Day will receive a free poster picturing Star Guitar, the five-time Louisiana Champions Day winner and all-time Louisiana-bred earnings leader retired this year. Star Guitar's owner, Evelyn Benoit, and trainer, Al Stall Jr., will autograph the posters in exchange for a donation to the Louisiana Horse Rescue Association.
On December 15, three berths to Las Vegas will be on the line when Fair Grounds hosts a National Handicapping Championship qualifier. In addition, a cash prize pool will be paid out to all players who finish ahead of past NHC champions, and Louisiana natives, Michael Beychok and Judy Wagner.
The "Beat the Champs" NHC Qualifier is a "real money" handicapping contest. Players put up a $300 entry fee plus a $150 live money bankroll. The top three finishers receive automatic berths to the $1.5 million DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship, January 25-26, at Treasure Island Las Vegas. If "Beat the Champs" attracts 50 or more entries, every player who finishes ahead of both Beychok and Wagner will receive an equal share of a cash prize pool that could climb as high as $20,000.
Entry form and complete rules for the "Beat the Champs" NHC Qualifier can be accessed online at www.FairGroundsRaceCourse.com/Tournaments.
Santa Super Saturday on December 22 includes three open-company stakes topping a super-sized 12-race card. A family holiday celebration will feature live reindeer and Santa Claus.
Later in the meet, all of Fair Grounds' 10 graded stakes (the most important races in the sport) appear on three days when New Orleans racing takes its turns in the national spotlight. Those dates are spaced five weeks apart so horses can run multiple times in key divisions, including the popular three-year-old stakes series that consistently produce starters for the Kentucky Derby and Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks.
Road to the Derby Kickoff Day on January 19 features five stakes worth $625,000, including the Grade 3, $200,000 Lecomte, the first in Fair Grounds' three-race series for three-year-old Derby hopefuls. The purses get even heftier on Louisiana Derby Preview Day with six stakes worth more than $1 million, including the Grade 2, $400,000 Risen Star Stakes for top three-year-olds.
The first two stakes in Fair Grounds' three-race graded stakes series for three-year-olds also carry significant points. The Risen Star, which joins the Louisiana Derby as part of the Championship Series, will offer 85 points (50-20-10-5) and the Lecomte will be worth a total of 17 points (10-4-2-1).
A similar point system is being used for three-year-old fillies aspiring to the $1 million Kentucky Oaks. All three of Fair Grounds' major route stakes for three-year-old fillies are included in the new "Road to the Kentucky Oaks." The Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks will be one of the premier 170-point (100-40-20-10) stakes, the Grade 3 Rachel Alexandra will be worth 85 points (50-20-10-5) and the Silverbulletday will offer 17 points (10-4-2-1).
Others new notables include Joe Woodard, seventh in the nation in 2011 with 204 wins and seventh this year (through Tuesday) with 161; Hugh McMahon, an ex-jockey and former assistant to Scott Lake in the midst of a career year with 128 wins, 14th in the nation, and more than $2.5 million in earnings through Tuesday; Eric Reed, a Kentucky native who is in the top 100 in the nation by wins with 63 through Tuesday; Garry Simms, winner of the past two runnings of the Grade 3 Debutante at Churchill Downs (Blueeyesintherein, 2012, and Flashy Lassie, 2011) while recovering from bone cancer; and Gary Thomas, who has trained throughout the country since 1976 and saddled Rampage to a fourth-place finish in the 1986 Kentucky Derby.
Fair Grounds will once again offer Starlight Racing. The popular series, with music, food trucks, drink specials and racing under the lights, has been expanded to seven dates this season -- December 28, January 18, February 1, February 22, March 1, March 8 and March 15.
Full-time students enrolled at an accredited institution of higher learning are eligible to win one of six $1,000 scholarships to be given away on two dates in December. The first three scholarships will be raffled off on Louisiana Champions Day, December 8, while the other three will be given away at the first Starlight Racing on December 28. The scholarships are sponsored in part by the Louisiana Thoroughbred Breeders Association.
Beginning Thanksgiving Day, Fair Grounds will offer 50-cent minimums on Trifecta, Pick Three and Super Hi-5 wagers to go with the existing 50-cent minimums on the Pick Four and Black Gold 5.
Also starting Opening Day, the Black Gold 5 will be offered on the final five races daily. The Black Gold 5 is a jackpot Pick 5 carryover wager requiring the bettor to hold the lone successful ticket with the winners of five consecutive races. On cards when there is no single-ticket winner, half of the pool will be paid as consolation to tickets with the most correct and half of the pool will go to the carryover.
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