A new date for the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), announced Aug. 11 by Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, puts the race on the same day as the Florida Derby (gr. I)--and Gulfstream Park has no plans to alter course.
Fair Grounds plans a number of significant changes for its upcoming 2009-10 meet, including an increased purse, new distance, and new date for its signature event, the Louisiana Derby, a major prep for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
The purse will spike from $600,000 to $750,000, the distance will increase from 1 1/16 miles to 1 1/8 miles, and perhaps most significantly, the race will be moved to March 27—five weeks before the Run for the Roses. In recent years, the Louisiana Derby was held seven weeks prior to the Kentucky Derby.
The Louisiana Derby’s sister race, the $400,000 Fair Grounds Oaks (gr. II) for 3-year-old fillies, was also moved to March 26, just five weeks prior to the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I).
“We really believe we have the best place in the country to prep 3-year-olds," Fair Grounds vice president and general manager Eric Halstrom said. "We have the best weather, best conventional dirt surface, and we have the ability to bump the race purse a little bit. After talking to horsemen, we realized having the (Louisiana Derby) seven weeks (before the Kentucky Derby) was kind of hard for a final Derby prep. The stars aligned for us to be able to make these changes.”
The changes also prompted Fair Grounds to make adjustments to its other Louisiana Series races for 3-year-olds. The Lecomte Stakes (gr. III), now at one mile and 40 yards, and Risen Star Stakes (gr. III) at 1 1/16 miles, will move to Jan. 23 and Feb. 20, respectively.
Halstrom said he is hopeful the Louisiana Derby and Fair Grounds Oaks would be upgraded to grade I status in the near future, because of the changes and the high-profile horses that have won the races in the recent past. Proud Spell and Rachel Alexandra won the Fair Grounds Oaks and Kentucky Oaks the past two seasons.
“I would think at some point that change would be called for,” Halstrom said, “and quite honestly, without these changes, I’m not we would have gotten there.”
With the move of the Louisiana Derby to March 27, the race will likely now compete with Gulfstream’s Florida Derby, also run five weeks prior to the Kentucky Derby. Though Gulfstream has not yet announced the stakes schedule for its upcoming meet, Mike Mullaney, the racetrack’s media director, said he expects the Florida Derby to be held March 27.
Mullaney acknowledged some surprise with Fair Grounds’ decision to hold the Louisiana Derby on the same day as the Florida Derby.
“I’m not aware of any discussion (between Fair Grounds and Gulfstream) leading up to (the change),” Mullaney said. “It’s just another example of how we can communicate better in this industry. I’m surprised. A couple of years ago, the Dubai World Cup and the Florida Derby were moved to the same weekend and we had to deal with the dispersing of the jockeys, trainers, and even the media. It makes things harder, especially for TV.
“We respect their racetrack, but I’m not sure I see the value (in the date change). But we’ll just keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
The Florida Derby found success with a move to five weeks prior to the Kentucky Derby several years ago.
When asked about potentially competing with Gulfstream, Halstrom said: "The Florida Derby is one of the most storied Derby preps we have. We have a lot of respect for it. But we feel that we deserve final Derby prep status, and this was the best way to go about business for us."
Fair Grounds also announced the addition of two new dirt races for fillies and mares, including a 1 1/8-mile stakes positioned on Dec. 19 to potentially entice a year-end showdown between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, who are considered by many North America’s top two horses in training.
The 85-day Fair Grounds meet will have its earliest start date ever when the New Orleans racetrack opens Nov. 6, a week earlier than last year and well ahead of the old Thanksgiving Day opener of years' past. Closing day for the 21-week season will be March 28.
A record $7.24-million, 66-race stakes schedule was announced for the upcoming meet.