Fair Grounds set for 140th thoroughbred racing season

NEW ORLEANS — Horse racing fans have plenty of reason to be excited for the upcoming milestone 140th thoroughbred racing season at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, from the growing number of major stakes days to the addition of at least a dozen new trainers, not to mention an expanded and improved wagering menu.
The nation’s third-oldest track opens Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 24, per a tradition dating back to 1898, when a 3-year-old bay colt named Abuse won the Thanksgiving Handicap by a nose in front of a then-record crowd, nearly 10,000-strong, which the local paper, The Picayune, described as “one mass of bustling, surging humanity.” This year’s 84-day meet continues with live racing at least four days per week through April 1.
Opening Weekend
The 10-race card on Opening Day Presented by East Jefferson General Hospital is highlighted by the 86th running of the Thanksgiving Handicap, a six-furlong sprint for the fastest older horses on the grounds. First post is earlier than usual, at 11 a.m. Grandstand general admission is free and clubhouse general admission is $7. The traditional Thanksgiving buffet in the Clubhouse Dining Room starts at $65 per person for tables of four or six with the most enviable tables going for up to $125 per person. Seating is limited and reservations are required. Reservations can only be made by phone weekdays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., at (504) 943-2200.
If family commitments preclude you from dining here on Opening Day, keep in mind that the scene is just as lively the rest of Opening Weekend. The day after Thanksgiving may be “Black Friday” for bargain-hunting shoppers, but in New Orleans it’s long been a chance for families to enjoy quality time at the races. Even as far back as 1873, The Picayune reported that on the second day of the Fair Grounds season, “The grandstand was a picture of unusual beauty…and the man who could walk along the front way and cast a glance at the fair faces in the west end of the grand pavilion without feeling that he was in the land of the blessed and the home of the prettiest women on earth ought to be ruled off the course.”
Fair Grounds Legends Purse
The rich 140-year history of Fair Grounds will be celebrated on the track the first Saturday of the meet, Nov. 26, with the one-time-only running of the Fair Grounds Legends Purse, pitting contemporary horses outfitted in the historically accurate “throwback” colors of the greatest equine stars ever to run in New Orleans. Track announcer John G. Dooley will call the names of legends like Black Gold, Whirlaway and Risen Star, as if competing against one another in a fantasy race. The Fair Grounds Legends Purse will be a standard pari-mutuel contest, with the only deviations from normal procedure being the silks and the race call from Dooley.
140th Season Specials
Opening Weekend will mark the debut of several season-long specials honoring the 140th season, including a three-course fixed-price lunch special in the Clubhouse dining room for $18.72 (recognizing Fair Grounds’ inaugural meet in 1872), as well as martinis for $1.40 (recognizing 140 seasons) with purchase of an entrée.
Collectible Legends Cups
Also throughout the season, four collectible 22-ounce Miller Lite Fair Grounds Legends cups depicting popular runners from the Fair Grounds Hall of Fame will be available from concession stands throughout the track. Gracing the cups will be 1924 Louisiana Derby and Kentucky Derby winner Black Gold, the 1941 Triple Crown winner and 1942 Louisiana Handicap hero Whirlaway, the 1988 Louisiana Derby and dual classic winner Risen Star and 2009 Fair Grounds Oaks heroine and Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra. Each Legends Cup will be available for a limited time.
Claiming Crown XIII
The 140th season starts strong with something special on every Saturday through the end of the calendar year. One week after the Fair Grounds Legends Purse, blue-collar heroes will be on display as the Claiming Crown comes to Fair Grounds for the first time on Dec. 3. Racing’s championship day for hard-knocking horses, Claiming Crown XIII features six stakes worth $500,000. Much like the Breeders’ Cup, bettors appreciate the Claiming Crown for the highly competitive fields with quality horses converging from all different regions, a scenario that allows the sharp players to find live horses at long odds. Among those nominated to the Claiming Crown is Rapid Redux, who could end his historic 2011 campaign with an attempt at a record 20th consecutive win in the $150,000 Claiming Crown Jewel.
More Major Stakes Days
Other big stakes days in December include Louisiana Champions Day Presented by Acadian Ambulance, with 11 stakes for Louisiana-breds worth $1.1 million, on Dec. 10, and Santa Super Saturday, with three open-company stakes topping a super-sized 12-race card on Dec. 17. The New Year’s Eve card on Dec. 31 features two gender-restricted divisions of the Louisiana Futurity, the season’s final stakes for 2-year-olds.
The other major stakes days to circle on the calendar prior to Closing Weekend are Road to the Derby Kickoff Day Presented by Hotel Monteleone (six stakes worth $650,000, including the Grade III Lecomte) on Jan. 21 and Louisiana Derby Preview Day Presented by Lamarque Ford (six stakes worth $885,000, including the Grade II Risen Star) on Feb. 25.
More Stakes Races
Fair Grounds has boosted the purses of 19 open-company races on its 2011-2012 stakes schedule. This season will feature 60 stakes cumulatively worth $7.54 million, including the six Claiming Crown stakes. Ten of the stakes are graded – five Grade II and five Grade III.
Louisiana Derby Weekend
The Fair Grounds season goes out in style with the biggest Closing Weekend in the history of the track. On the same weekend as the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four in New Orleans, sports fans from around the nation will be treated to starlight racing under the lights on March 30 (a Friday), followed by Fair Grounds Oaks Day on March 31 and Louisiana Derby Day on Closing Day, April. The Oaks Day card features four stakes for fillies and mares worth $735,000, including the Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks. The grand finale, Louisiana Derby Day, scheduled on the day between the Final Four’s semifinals and finals, will feature seven stakes, four of them Grade II events, highlighted by the $1 million Louisiana Derby for 3-year-olds making their last start before the world’s most famous horse race, the Kentucky Derby.
Louisiana Derby Day will also see the return of Fillies, Fashion & Fizz, an afternoon of haute couture fashion shows, champagne and specialty cocktails in the Miller Lite Beer Garden.
Starlight Racing
The popular Starlight Racing series with music, drink specials and racing under the lights has been expanded to six dates this season. For one price, guests can choose between two upscale party scenes – a club atmosphere with DJs and Starlight Dancers in the Miller Lite Beer Garden or live music with top cover bands in the Clubhouse.
New Trainers
Day in and day out, Fair Grounds will offer perhaps the best racing in its 140 seasons. In addition to nationally prominent regulars like Steve Asmussen, Bret Calhoun, Tom Amoss, Al Stall Jr., Mike Stidham, Neil Howard and Steve Margolis, the barn area this year will be occupied by at least a dozen fresh faces bringing quality horses intended for open company. Larry Jones, conditioner of perhaps the top American horse in training in Havre de Grace, will return to basing his operation here after a few years away with a stable of more than 40 horses. Others with sizable strings that will be new to Fair Grounds (or, like Jones, returning after a prolonged absence) include David Vance, winner of more than 3,000 races and a leading trainer at tracks including Oaklawn Park and Churchill Downs; Allen Milligan, the 2009 Oaklawn Park training champion and a perennial force in Texas; Russian-born Gennadi Dorochenko, 12th in the Arlington Park standings this season; Danny Peitz, an Arkansas native who wins consistently at Oaklawn and Arlington; Irish-born John Good, the former Kentucky-based assistant to Bob Baffert; Kellyn Gorder, who helped develop household names like Super Saver and Drosselmeyer for WinStar Farm before they were sent to the racetrack; Panamanian-born Marco Salazar, a mainstay on the Chicago circuit; Kentucky regular Philip Sims, best known for training Grade I winner Hot Cha Cha; Doug Matthews, who had 10 Arlington Park winners this year; Timothy Martin, second at Prairie Meadows this summer; and Aaron Chadwick Box, a Top 20 trainer at Lone Star Park.
Deep Jockey Colony
Rosie Napravnik, who last season became the first woman to claim a Fair Grounds riding title with 110 wins, will be back to defend that title this season. She’ll face a typically deep colony of accomplished veterans headed by Robby Albarado, who owns a record seven leading jockey titles here. Others who could challenge for the top of the standings include Shaun Bridgmohan, the 2009-2010 champion; Corey Lanerie, second at the Churchill Downs Spring Meet; and James Graham, the Irishman fresh off his first Arlington Park title. Teenage upstart C.J. McMahon could make an impact in his first Fair Grounds season, coming off a 65-win meet at Evangeline Downs.
Black Gold 5, Rolling Doubles added to
Wagering Menu
An expanded Fair Grounds wagering menu will offer bettors more opportunities to cash tickets, large and small. For those seeking the big score, the new “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 will go to the carryover. The Black Gold 5 will begin on Race 5 every day and the bet carries a $.50 minimum.
Fair Grounds is also proud to be the first racetrack in Louisiana to offer rolling Daily Doubles. Previously available twice per day, a Daily Double will now be offered beginning in every race (except, of course, the last).
The availability of the Black Gold and rolling Daily Doubles remain subject to the approval of the Louisiana State Racing Commission.
Handicapping Contests
Fair Grounds has added two new handicapping contests this season, including the first-ever Fair Grounds NHC Superqualifier on Dec. 17, with an unprecedented 10 berths to the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship on the line. Fair Grounds will give away a grand total of 12 NHC seats in December, as two additional berths will be the top prizes in an online Claiming Crown Handicapping Contest administered by TwinSpires.com on Dec. 3.
Handicapping Seminars
Free “No Favorites Allowed” handicapping seminars for bettors of all skill levels will be held Saturdays in The Phoenix Room beginning 40 minutes prior to first post. Moderator Jim Mulvihill and an ever-changing cast of guest handicappers will analyze the day’s card and offer race-by-race selections with an emphasis on horses that offer value. Guest handicappers will be forbidden from picking the morning line favorite in any race.
Horse Ownership
Fair Grounds will host three Horse Ownership Seminars this season where fans can learn all about what it’s like to own a Thoroughbred racehorse from people that have experienced some of the greatest highs in sports. The first two seminars are free. On Claiming Crown Day, Dec. 3, join us in the Black Gold Room (Derby Building, second floor, across from the 1/16 pole) for coffee and pastries during morning workouts, then get a behind-the-scenes backstretch tour and meet top Fair Grounds-based trainers. On Jan. 14 a similar program will be offered in the Black Gold Room with a new lineup of speakers.
On February 11, enjoy a Day at the Races with lunch in Fair Grounds’ private suite, then visit the paddock and winner’s circle before and after a race. The Jan. 14 luncheon requires reservations and a nominal admission (contact Sandra Salmen, Horsemen’s Relations, at 504-948-1150).
Post Times and Admission
First post is 12:40 p.m. daily, except Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 24, 11 a.m.); Starlight Racing (Jan. 6, 20; Feb. 10, 24; March 16, 30; 5 p.m.) and select Major Stakes Days (Dec. 3, 10; Jan. 21; Feb. 25; March 31; April 1; 12:10 p.m.).
Free grandstand general admission and $7 clubhouse general admission daily, except Starlight Racing (Jan. 6, 20; Feb. 10, 24; March 16, 30; $5 Grandstand/$10 Clubhouse and Miller Lite Beer Garden) and select Major Stakes Days (Jan. 21; Feb. 25; March 31; April 1; $5 Grandstand/$10 Clubhouse).

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