Hodges Photography/Lou Hodges, Jr.

Fair Grounds Boosts Purses for 19 Open Stakes

Claiming Crown to be held at New Orleans track; La. Derby moved to Sunday, April 1.

Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots has boosted the purses of 19 open-company races on the 2011-2012 stakes schedule released June 29.

The 84-day meet, running Nov. 24, 2011 to April 1, 2012, will feature 60 stakes worth $7.54 million. That includes six Claiming Crown stakes worth $500,000 to be hosted in New Orleans for the first time Dec. 3. This will be the 140th Thoroughbred racing season at Fair Grounds.

The 99th renewal of the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), worth $1 million, will be run April 1, 2012, the season’s final day. For the first time since 2004, Fair Grounds’ signature race is set for a Sunday, which will be the day between Saturday night’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Semifinals and Monday night’s Finals at the nearby Louisiana Superdome.

The Louisiana Derby, contested at 1 1/8 miles over the main track, is among the nation’s premier events for 3-year-olds preparing for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) at Churchill Downs.

Louisiana Derby Week will also feature racing under the lights March 30, and another major racing day on Saturday, March 31, with four stakes for fillies and mares anchored by the $500,000 Fair Grounds Oaks (gr. II). It is the richest prep for Churchill’s famed Kentucky Oaks (gr. I).

“The 2012 Final Four presents a unique opportunity for Fair Grounds to show off world-class racing to tens of thousands of out-of-state visitors in New Orleans that weekend,” said Eric Halstrom, Fair Grounds vice president and general manager. “If ever there were a time for a sports fan to make their first visit to our storied racetrack this would be it.”

There are several other enhancements to the Fair Grounds stakes calendar. Every open-company stakes event will now be worth at least $75,000 and four six-figure stakes also received sizable bumps. In addition, seven stakes that have been run with unacceptable field sizes in recent years have been eliminated.

“The adjustments to this stakes schedule have been made to reward the best horses in our strongest divisions,” said racing secretary Jason Boulet. “We’re out to attract the highest quality horses we can and the most straightforward way to do that is to offer them more money.”

The races to receive the largest purse hikes from last season are the Lecomte Stakes (gr. III), the first in a three-race series of two-turn graded stakes for 3-year-olds ($100,000 to $175,000); the Silverbulletday, the first of three major two-turn stakes for 3-year-old fillies ($100,000 to $125,000); the Rachel Alexandra Stakes (gr. III), the second local stop for 3-year-old fillies on the road to the Kentucky Oaks ($150,000 to $200,000); and the Louisiana Handicap for older horses ($60,000 to $100,000).

The 15 open-company stakes going from $60,000 last season to $75,000 this season are the Thanksgiving Handicap, the Woodchopper Stakes, the Pago Hop Stakes, the Blushing K.D. Handicap, the Tenacious Handicap, the Buddy Diliberto Memorial Handicap, the Marie G. Krantz Memorial Handicap, the Pan Zareta Stakes, the F.W. Gaudin Memorial Stakes, the Tiffany Lass Stakes, the Mardi Gras Handicap, the Colonel Power Stakes, the Allen Lacombe Memorial Handicap, the Black Gold Stakes, and the Happy Ticket Stakes.

In addition, seven stakes that appeared on last season’s schedule have been discontinued because recent editions produced small fields. A few of the most prominent race names were assigned new conditions. The discontinued stakes are the Bienville Stakes, the Grindstone Stakes, the John E. Jackson Memorial Stakes, the Dr. A.B. Leggio Memorial Stakes, the Letellier Memorial Stakes, the Pelleteri Stakes, and the Sugar Bowl Stakes.

Stakes that have been assigned more appropriate conditions are the Black Gold Stakes (now for 3-year-olds at 7 ½ furlongs on turf), the Happy Ticket Stakes (older females at 5 1/2 furlongs on turf), the Allen Lacombe Memorial Handicap (3-year-old fillies at 7 ½ furlongs), the Mardi Gras Stakes (older females at 1 1/16 miles on turf), the Pan Zareta Stakes (older females at 5 1/2 furlongs on turf), and the Tiffany Lass Stakes (older females at 1 1/16 miles).

The Fair Grounds stakes schedule is highlighted by 10 stakes that were graded last season – five grade II and five grade III. The grade II events are the Risen Star Stakes and Louisiana Derby for 3-year-olds, the Fair Grounds Oaks for 3-year-old fillies, the New Orleans Handicap for older horses and the Mervin H. Muniz Memorial Handicap for older turf horses.

The Grade III events are the Lecomte Stakes for 3-year-olds, the Rachel Alexandra Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, the Mineshaft Handicap for older horses, and both the Fair Grounds Handicap and the Colonel E.R. Bradley Handicap for older turf horses.

The North American Graded Stakes committee will meet in late 2011 to determine gradings for 2012.

“We are hopeful that Fair Grounds could be on the cusp of its first grade I race,” said Halstrom. “The Fair Grounds Oaks, which last season was the richest Kentucky Oaks prep, has produced four Kentucky Oaks winners in its past seven runnings.”