Fair Grounds opens with salty renewal of Thanksgiving 'Cap

Fair Grounds is generally accepted to be the third-oldest racetrack in the country, although many accounts, including a heavily researched 2006 feature in The Times-Picayune by Bob Fortus, contend that Fair Grounds could be at least the second-olde

Fair Grounds will once again renew a beloved New Orleans tradition dating back to 1898 when the 141st Thoroughbred racing season opens on Thanksgiving Day. First post for Thursday's 10-race holiday program is 11 a.m. (CST).

Fair Grounds is generally accepted to be the third-oldest racetrack in the country, although many accounts, including a heavily researched 2006 feature in The Times-Picayune by Bob Fortus, contend that Fair Grounds could be at least the second-oldest, if not the oldest.

The year of the first Fair Grounds meet has long been reported as 1872, but historians have found mentions of Fair Grounds racing in newspapers as early as 1865. There is also primary-source evidence that meets were conducted under other auspices -- including the Union Course and Creole Course -- at the juncture of Gentilly Boulevard and Bayou Road (roughly the current site of Fair Grounds) as early as 1852.

While live racing at Fair Grounds dates back at least 141 years, the tradition of Thanksgiving Day racing is "only" 114 years old.

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.

An exciting addition to the local sprint ranks is Delaunay from the Tom Amoss barn. After handily beating Gantry in the September 8 Temperence Hill at Louisiana Downs, the reformed claimer ran away with Churchill's November 3 Bet On Sunshine by 5 1/2 lengths.

Also coming off a win beneath the Twin Spires is the royally-bred Shrill, who rallied to take an optional claimer for Al Stall Jr. Earlier this year, the Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider homebred was a troubled third (demoted to fourth) behind Delaunay in the Kelly's Landing at Churchill, but could be on the upswing.

One race later on the holiday card, String King and Kissimmee Kyle lead a 10-horse field of Louisiana-breds in the $60,000 Mr. Sulu Stakes. The about one-mile affair over the Stall-Wilson Turf serves as a prep for the December 8 Louisiana Champions Day Turf.

The Fair Grounds stakes schedule is among the richest and most diverse of any winter racing destination, with 56 stakes cumulatively worth $7,435,000, an average of more than $132,000 per race. Ten of the stakes were graded last season -- five Grade 2 and five Grade 3. The 2013 gradings will be released in December.

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 season reaches its apex on March 30 for Louisiana Derby Day, the richest afternoon of racing in state history with purses totaling more than $2.5 million. The historic program will feature both the $1 million Louisiana Derby, a key final prep race for the Kentucky Derby, and the Grade 2, $500,000 Fair Grounds Oaks, a race that has produced an unprecedented five Kentucky Oaks winners in its past eight runnings, including 2012 heroine Believe You Can.

First post on Louisiana Derby Day is 2 p.m., later than usual in order to accommodate that morning's 75th Crescent City Classic road race, which ends in nearby City Park. The Louisiana Derby Day racing and festivities will continue into the evening hours for the first time ever.

A new points-based qualifying system for the Kentucky Derby in effect for 2013 includes the Louisiana Derby in the highest tier of prep races for the world's most famous horse race. Under the new rules, three-year-old Thoroughbreds will earn their way to the Kentucky Derby by earning points in select stakes. The $1 million Louisiana Derby, the signature event at Fair Grounds, is one of only seven races that will offer the maximum 170 points (100 for first, 40 for second, 20 for third, 10 for fourth).

Only 36 stakes overall, including two run overseas, are part of the new "Road to the Kentucky Derby" point system. Of those, only 17 of the most important are part of the "Kentucky Derby Championship Series."

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).

The local jockey colony features two-time defending riding champion Rosie Napravnik, who finished last season with 111 wins. The top seven jockeys in last meet's standings are expected back this year. Beyond Napravnik, in order of their 2011-2012 finish, the list includes: James Graham; Miguel Mena; Shaun Bridgmohan; C.J. McMahon, last meet's teen apprentice sensation now firmly established on the Louisiana circuit; Richard Eramia; and Shane Sellers.

New to Fair Grounds this season are two riders with more than 1,000 career wins apiece. David Cohen, a New York regular who pulled off a 33-1 dead-heat win in the Grade 1 Travers aboard Golden Ticket, is expected to get quality mounts from trainer Larry Jones. Meanwhile, Leandro Goncalves, a Brazilian native who has won the last three jockey titles at Indiana Downs and was fourth at the Churchill Spring Meet, will likely continue his successful partnership with trainer Tom Amoss.

Nationally prominent regulars like Steve Asmussen, Larry Jones, Bret Calhoun, Amoss, Al Stall Jr., Mike Maker, Mike Stidham, Neil Howard and Steve Margolis will be joined this year by a handful of quality horsemen who are either new to Fair Grounds or are returning after an extended absence.

New Orleans native Wayne Catalano, who was a 15-year-old high-school dropout when he came to work for Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg at Fair Grounds in 1971, will have stalls here for the first time since the 2002-2003 meet. Catalano, currently 50th all-time with 2,339 wins as of Tuesday, won the 1997 Louisiana Derby with Crypto Star, who went on to finish fifth in that year's Kentucky Derby.

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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