Friesan Fire won the 2009 Louisiana Derby.

Friesan Fire won the 2009 Louisiana Derby.

Lou Hodges Jr.

Purse Hike Among Louisiana Derby Changes

Kentucky Derby prep race will have new distance and date on calendar.

Edited Fair Grounds press release

Fair Grounds Race Course and Slots has raised the purse of the grade II Louisiana Derby to $750,000, increased the distance to 1 1/8 miles, and moved the 3-year-old fixture to March 27 – five weeks prior to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).

The significant changes to its signature race and accompanying races, as well as the addition of two new dirt races for fillies and mares, highlight a record $7.24 million, 66-race stakes schedule for the 2009-2010 Fair Grounds meet.

The 85-day Fair Grounds meet will have its earliest start date ever when the historic 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.

In recent years, the Louisiana Derby, which produced Kentucky Derby winners Black Gold (1924) and Grindstone (1996), had been a $600,000 race over 1 1/16 miles and was carded seven weeks prior to the Derby. The switch to closing weekend, along with moving the grade II, $400,000 Fair Grounds Oaks to headline a stakes quartet for fillies and mares March 26 has altered both series of races. Three-year-old races such as the grade III, $100,000 Lecomte Stakes, now one mile and 40 yards, and grade III Risen Star Stakes at 1 1/16 miles will move to Jan. 23 and Feb. 20, respectively.

The Louisiana Derby – one of 10 graded stakes run at the meet – is the centerpiece of six stakes events on the March 27 program that also includes the grade II, $500,000 Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap for older horses at 1 1/8 miles on the Stall-Wilson Turf Course and the grade II, $500,000 New Orleans Handicap for 4-year-olds and up at 1 1/8 miles on dirt.

“We’re excited about being the premier racing venue for our nation’s best 3-year olds when preparing for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks.” said Fair Grounds vice president and general manager Eric Halstrom.  “Most predominantly, we have a broadened race schedule and event-packed week of activities surrounding the Louisiana Derby and Fair Grounds Oaks. These changes are sure to focus the racing world’s attention on New Orleans throughout our upcoming season.”

Fair Grounds has also added a pair of dirt races for fillies and mares, including a new 1 1/8-mile stakes race positioned on Dec. 19 to potentially entice a year-end showdown between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, the duo who is widely considered North America’s top two horses in training.

The unnamed Dec.19 race over conventional dirt in a central location currently features a $100,000 purse, but track officials acknowledge that total prize money could increase if a showdown between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta does materialize.

“Horse racing fans desire to see Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta race against one another, and we’re no different,” Halstrom said. “By positioning this new race six weeks after the Breeders’ Cup World Championships and three weeks after Churchill Downs’ Clark and Falls City handicaps, it gives all parties involved something to consider and opens the door for further discussions. Anything further at this point would be premature and circumstances could be different in four months, but this new race gives us an option to dream.”

Fair Grounds’ other new event for fillies and mares is also unnamed and the 1 1/16-mile race is scheduled to feature a $200,000 purse March 13, which is three weeks prior to Oaklawn Park’s grade I Apple Blossom Handicap.

Fair Grounds is expected to distribute an average of $350,000 in daily purses.