Fair Grounds to hold final turf warm-ups

NEW ORLEANS — Saturday’s two stakes contests at Fair Grounds Race Course will mean different things to different people.

For some, the pair of $75,000, Grade II turf races — the Black Gold Stakes for colts and the Allen LaCombe Memorial Handicap for fillies — represent a chance to give their mounts a test run for the 100th edition of the $1 million Louisiana Derby or the accompanying $500,000 Fair Grounds Oaks. For others, the events will be a springboard to equally big races elsewhere.

But everyone is just happy the two turf stakes actually will be run, thanks to a break in this winter’s continually rainy weather.

The Black Gold Stakes, the sixth race on an 11-event card, had just seven entries as of Friday, but it figures to be a tightly contested affair. The early favorite, Up With the Birds, comes in with 2-1 odds for trainer Malcolm Pierce and owner Mark Samuel.

Birds arrived in New Orleans last fall after making the long trip from Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack, Pierce’s home base. Pierce said he likes bringing much of his stable to the Crescent City for the winter meet, and it has been a successful visit.

“It’s been a good first few months (of 2013) for us,” he said. “We keep our horses here for the whole meet, and I’ve had a good start so far. We’ve been entered 11 times so far, and we’ve won five of them. I can’t complain about the way things have gone.”

Pierce said Up With the Birds will be coming off a 45-day layoff, a stretch that the trainer hopes will boost Birds’ chances. The Black Gold — a 71/2-furlong grass contest — will be the mount’s first race on turf.

Although the Black Gold is the final race for 3-year-olds during the Fair Grounds’ 2012-13 meet until the much-anticipated Louisiana Derby on March 30, Pierce said the 100th running of that race most likely isn’t in Up With the Birds’ future. Instead, the Ontario colt will appear next at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., before a return home for the Woodbine Mile, a $1 million, Grade I stakes. (The Louisiana Derby is a Grade II.)

Likewise, the prohibitive favorite for Saturday’s 71/2-furlong LaCombe Stakes — Columbine Stable’s Magical Moon, who sported 3-1 odds Friday — plans to skip the Fair Grounds’ big day at the end of the month. In the case of 3-year-old fillies, Louisiana Derby Day includes the Grade II, $500,000 Fair Grounds Oaks.

But Magical Moon’s New Orleans-based trainer, Al Stall Jr., said his filly’s next stop will be at Keeneland for the Grade I, $500,000 Central Bank Ashland Stakes.

“That’s the goal right now,” Stall said.

Stall said Moon recently returned to the turf, including a grass race at Saratoga Race Course in New York. That development meshes nicely with another one — the drying out of the turf course at Fair Grounds. While several 2012-13 turf stakes have been rescheduled or canceled because of incessant rain and a soggy surface, Fair Grounds officials decided this week that the track will be ready to go for the LaCombe, the card’s 10th race.

In fact, officials said Friday that the turf probably could have been used for Friday night’s Starlight Racing, but they decided to play it safe.

“We’re happy (with Magical Moon) on turf,” Stall said. “We love the filly. She’s a great performer, and she ran just a thrilling race on the grass in Saratoga. She’s happy, she’s fresh and she’s ready to begin on a big season.”

But not all of the entrants in Saturday’s two stakes will hop from NOLA to other locales. Trainer Larry Jones’ Smitten — a Kentucky-based filly who will be piloted Saturday by the Fair Grounds’ leading jockey, Rosie Napravnik — will start the LaCombe at 7-2.

Jones confirmed that if Smitten performs well, she’ll definitely run in the Fair Grounds Oaks. And the trainer is thrilled that Saturday’s turf contests will be run on what hopefully will be a solid, dry course.

Jones said he has been steadily working out Smitten, who suffered because several of the turf races she was pegged for at the Fair Grounds were nixed by rain.

“We know she likes running on grass,” Jones said. “She’s been waiting for a chance to run.”