Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots in New Orleans, La., wrapped up its sesquicentennial (150th) season of racing on Sunday, March 27, and although the destruction caused by Hurricane Ida (late August/early September) offered plenty of challenges, fans were welcomed back to the facility as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic slowed and business was solid due to the tremendous support from both horsemen and bettors alike.
The meet, which kicked off with the traditional Thanksgiving Day opener on Nov. 26, included 80 racing days and was highlighted, as always, by the 109th running of the $1 million TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2).
“The damage to the barn area, parts of the facility and the loss of the infield tote board due to Hurricane Ida leading into our meet caused some challenges, but we are New Orleans, and we are resilient,” Fair Grounds senior director of racing Jason Boulet said. “We are extremely proud of everyone who came together to put out a great product on a day-in, day-out basis and as always, we are extremely grateful to the horseman for their continued support throughout the meet. The return of the fans after a difficult, prolonged stretch with the COVID-19 pandemic brought renewed energy to the racetrack, and we look forward to what should be a very special 2022-23 season.”
As the calendar turned over to 2022, Fair Grounds announced a 15% across the board purse increase and the meet reached its zenith on March 26, when the Louisiana Derby highlighted a robust 12-race card that included eight stakes. Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Epicenter, who earlier in the meet won the inaugural Gun Runner Stakes and the Risen Star (G2) presented by Lamarque Ford, captured Fair Grounds’ signature event over Zozos and Pioneer of Medina, establishing a new track record for 1 3/16 miles in the process. The Not This Time colt now storms into Louisville as one of the favorites for the 148th Run for the Roses for trainer Steve Asmussen, who hopes to add a first Kentucky Derby win to his amazing resume.
The co-featured TwinSires.com Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) marked the sophomore debut of 2021 2-year-old filly champion Echo Zulu, and the Eclipse Award winner did not disappoint, scoring a gate-to-wire victory over a hard-charging Hidden Connection to remain undefeated from five starts for owners L and N Racing and Winchell Thoroughbreds and trainer Asmussen. It was a banner Louisiana Derby Day for Asmussen and jockey Joel Rosario, who teamed up to win five races on the card.
On the Louisiana Derby Day undercard, Grandview Equine, Cheyenne Stable and LNJ Foxwoods’ Olympiad won the New Orleans Classic (G2) as the odds-on favorite under Junior Alvarado, nearly breaking the nine-furlong track record in the process for trainer Bill Mott. Earlier in the meet, the son of Speightstown shaved .01 off the 1 1/16-mile track record when winning the Mineshaft (G3). In the Muniz Memorial Classic (G2) presented by Horse Racing Nation, Two Emmys took the field gate to wire for Wolfe Racing, owner/trainer Hugh Robertson and the meet’s leading rider James Graham.
Louisiana native Ron Faucheux won his second consecutive training title with 43 wins, 10 more than four-time champion Brad Cox (33), who was named the Eclipse Award winner for the second consecutive year in 2021. 11-time local titlist Tom Amoss, Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, Chris Hartman and Bret Calhoun tied for third with 29 wins apiece, and Jose Camejo, who trains for the meet’s leading owner Brittlyn Stables, was next with 27.
Faucheux won three stakes at the meet, including a repeat score with fan favorite Monte Man in the Louisiana Champions’ Day Sprint. The meet highlights for Cox were his upset win with Turnerloose in the Rachel Alexandra (G2) presented by Fasig-Tipton and a victory by Mandaloun in the Louisiana (G3), a race in which he defeated arch rival Midnight Bourbon in the process. Amoss bagged a pair of turf stakes for 3-year-olds, winning the Black Gold with Dowagiac Chief and the Lacombe Memorial with Kneesnhips. Calhoun won four stakes with four different horses – Lovely Ride (Pago Hop), Who Took the Money (Louisiana Champions’ Day Turf), Excess Magic (Woodchopper) and Winning Romance (Shantel Lanerie Memorial). Hartman scored the 1,500th win of his career on Feb. 4 with Ekati’s Verve, and his turf sprint mare Elle Z won three stakes at the meet – the Menard Memorial, the Aime Memorial and the Mardi Gras. Camejo took down a pair of stakes with Ova Charged (Louisiana Champions Day Ladies Sprint and the Page Cortex) and added another with Behemah Star (Star Guitar).
With 72 wins, James Graham captured his fourth Fair Grounds riding title and third in a row. His top moment came when Call Me Midnight posted a 27-1 upset over eventual Risen Star and Louisiana Derby winner Epicenter in the Lecomte (G3) for trainer Keith Desormeaux. With a late surge, Mitchell Murrill, who won his 1,000th career race on Feb. 6 aboard Yin Yang in what was his first ever mount for trainer Brad Cox, surged late for second with 62 wins. Colby Hernandez, who led the way most of the meet, wound up third with 60 scores. Brian Hernandez, Jr., who led all local riders in percentage with 22% and Reylu Gutierrez, in his first season at Fair Grounds, rounded out the top five with 53 and 51 wins respectively.
Adam Beschizza, who finished sixth in the standings, scored his 500th career win in North America on Jan. 29 aboard the Joe Sharp-trained Holy Emperor. Graham and Marcelino Pedroza, Jr. were the only two riders to win as many as five races on a single card. Jack Gilligan and Gabriel Saez both returned from extended injury rehabs to score victories at the meet.
The owners’ race was dominated from start to finish by Evelyn Benoit’s Brittlyn Stable, which won 22 races at an amazing 33% clip, all with horses sired by her Clear Creek Farm’s stallion and Louisiana legend Star Guitar. It was the first local title for Brittlyn Stables, which nearly tripled its eight-win total from the 2020-21 meet. Allied Racing Stable of Chester Thomas finished second with 14 wins, and last year’s champ Godolphin checked in third with 10.
Following a break for the Christmas Holiday, Fair Grounds returned with a newly anointed “Road to the Derby Kickoff Day” card on Dec. 26. The program offered six stakes and featured a pair of brand-new added money events for the late season 2-year-olds, each offering 10-4-2-1 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby and Oaks respectively – the Gun Runner (won by Epicenter) and the Untapable (won by North County).
On Saturday, Feb. 12, Fair Grounds hosted the second annual “New Vocations Day at the Races”. Hosted on the simulcast show by retired jockey Rosie Napravnik, a four-time local champion, and Fair Grounds personality Joe Kristufek, the event raised over $5,000 and awareness for all aspects of racehorse aftercare. In addition to on-line donations, several jockeys, trainers and owners contributed a percentage of that day’s earnings to help support the Louisiana division of New Vocations.
Buoyed by a track record handle recorded on a spectacular 14-race “Louisiana Derby Preview Day” card on Feb. 19, handle and betting support were strong from opening day to closing day, no doubt helped by the increased popularity of the traditional Pick 5, following the elimination of the Black Gold 5 “jackpot” wager last season.
“We would like to thank all the horsemen for their continued support which makes Fair Grounds one of the premier winter destinations,” Fair Grounds racing secretary Scott Jones said. “With daily purses expected to noticeably increase and a strong stakes schedule, we are looking extremely forward to the 2022-23 Thoroughbred racing season.”