Let’s start off by saying that from a historical standpoint, the Louisiana Derby (G2) and the Fair Grounds road to the Kentucky Derby (G1) have not been a successful one. Only one Louisiana Derby winner has gone on to capture the roses in the past 96 years, and that horse, Grindstone, came back to run in the Arkansas Derby (G2).
(Black Gold won the Louisiana Derby and Kentucky Derby in 1924, the only other horse besides Grindstone to win both.)
Back in the Grindstone days, the Louisiana Derby was run a week earlier, which allowed horses to have another race before heading to Churchill Downs. Funny Cide ran in the race and was able to get his final prep in the Wood Memorial Stakes (G1), where he ran heavily favored Empire Maker to a half-length decision. That set him up perfectly for the Kentucky Derby. Risen Star won the Louisiana Derby, then scored a game head victory over Forty Niner in the Lexington Stakes (G2). In the Kentucky Derby, he dropped 15 lengths off the lead, circled the field very wide and closed well in the stretch to finish third without threatening the first two finishers, Winning Colors and Forty Niner.
Risen Star was held in such high regard, having won the Louisiana Derby Trial Stakes and the Louisiana Derby and then running huge in the Kentucky Derby and winning the Preakness (G1) and Belmont Stakes (G1), they renamed the Louisiana Derby Trial the Risen Star Stakes.
When the Louisiana Derby was moved to a later date, it all but eliminated the opportunity for a horse to race again before the Kentucky Derby, which meant they had to wait six weeks until the first Saturday in May, and trainers today have no desire to run three weeks later and then three weeks to the Derby.
For decades, whenever a horse attempted to win the Derby off a six-week layoff, references were made to Needles being the last horse to accomplish the feat in 1956. The difference is, Needles, like most horses back then, had run 13 times before the Derby and had actually begun his career in a 4 1/2-furlong maiden race in March of his 2-year-old campaign. Now, we have horses attempting it having run four or five times in their career, often with only two starts at 3.
So, is it about the six weeks or not having enough bottom to wait that long and be sharp enough and fit enough to go a mile and a quarter in a 20-horse field of accomplished stakes horses.
It is obvious that Fair Grounds has recognized the problem and decided to finally address it. Sure, they could have moved the Louisiana Derby and the preps back in the schedule and return to the way it used to be. I’m certainly not speaking for Fair Grounds, but it is very possible that their reluctance to do that was based on their desire to have the Louisiana Derby as a final prep for the Kentucky Derby and not a prep for another prep, thus giving the race more importance. That would apply even more so now with the points system. Every race awarded 100 points is a final Kentucky Derby prep – the TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby, Xpressbet Florida Derby (G1), UAE Derby Sponsored by Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group (G2), Wood Memorial, Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2), Santa Anita Derby (G1), and Arkansas Derby (G1). Would they make an exception with the Louisiana Derby if it was run earlier and horses came back and raced again? I can’t answer that, but it would be the only 100-point race that is not a final prep for the Derby.
So, what is the solution? How can you keep the race’s importance and still find a way for a horse to run in it and be able to come back in six weeks to win the Kentucky Derby?
Well, they just may have found the answer. In addressing an earlier question I asked, is it the six weeks or the question of having enough bottom?
Let’s assume it is the latter. After all, Animal Kingdom managed to win the Derby off six weeks. But he at least had never raced under a mile and was coming off a victory in the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (G3) over a deep and tiring Polytrack surface at Turfway Park, in which he ran the mile and an eighth in a slow 1:52.32.
So, assuming it is about bottom, Fair Grounds decided to lengthen the Risen Star Stakes from 1 1/16 miles to 1 1/8 miles and the Louisiana Derby from 1 1/8 miles to an unprecedented 1 3/16 miles. Now, horses competing in both races, or even just the Louisiana Derby, will have more bottom than horses in the past. There is now at least hope that the extra distance will get horses fitter and make up for the time between races.
Whether it works or not, it is a smart move in theory, and I believe you are going to see more production on the first Saturday in May from horses coming off the Louisiana Derby.
We will get the first taste of it Saturday when we see the results of the new nine-furlong Risen Star, which proved so popular it drew 23 horses and had to be split in two divisions. Expect to see another huge turnout for the Louisiana Derby. It just could be that there no longer is any reason to fear those six weeks.