Fair Grounds set for Road to Derby

NEW ORLEANS — Saturday’s Road to the Derby Kickoff Day represents what will hopefully be a new beginning in multiple ways for the Fair Grounds Race Course and its 2012-13 meet.

Not only does the rain that’s dogged the New Orleans area and soaked the tracks at the Fair Grounds seem to have passed by, but Saturday’s slate of races represents the local launching of a new points-based system for Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks hopefuls.

After seemingly weeks of wet weather, the forecast for Saturday looks sterling, drying out the course’s dirt track and creating what trainers and officials believe will be ideal conditions for Saturday’s schedule of 13 races that includes three big purses, one the 69th running of the $200,000, Grade III Lecomte Stakes.

Although the days and days of rain has still saturated the Fair Grounds’ turf track, forcing the postponement of two grass races until next Saturday, the facility’s dirt course is looking A-OK.

“I think it’ll be a great track,” said trainer Larry Jones, who has several mounts entered in today’s contests, including Smitten in the $125,000 Silverbulletday Stakes for 3-year-old fillies.

“Overall, it’s dried out really nice. It hasn’t affected us very much.”

Fellow trainer Bret Calhoun, whose Gal About Town and Ciao Bella Luna will challenge Smitten in the Silverbulletday, is thrilled the forces of nature have stopped unloading on New Orleans.

“It’s been raining for two weeks,” he said Friday. “But it seems like (the track) will be ready for the weekend. It should be tight and fast. It should be a good day.”

But perhaps even more important than the sunny skies will be the start of the much ballyhooed new system of qualifying for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks. In the past, monetary winnings largely determined which mounts went to Churchill Downs, which led to unbalanced and inflated purses at smaller courses around the country.

Under the revamped process, only 36 stakes events across the nation will count toward the road to Louisville, and it’ll be points, not winnings, that will be tallied to determine which horses make it to the world’s biggest equine event, the Kentucky Derby.

The new system will award a certain amount of points for the first- through fourth-place finishers at each of the three dozen stakes contests. Three of those races will take place at the Fair Grounds over the next two-plus months — today’s Grade III Lecomte Stakes, which will offer 17 total points; the Grade II Risen Star, slated for Louisiana Derby Preview Day Feb. 23 and offering 85 points; and the landmark, 100th running of the $1 million Louisiana Derby March 30, when a total of 170 points will be up for grabs, including 100 for the winner.

When the new system was announced by Churchill Downs Inc. in June, Louisville track officials hailed it as a way to attract new fans to the sport.

“We’re implementing a more fan-friendly, cohesive and simplified system that should create compelling drama and appeal to a wider customer base,” CDI Chairman Bob Evans said at the time. “Fans, as well as owners and trainers of the horses, will know exactly which races are included and what races matter the most based on a sliding scale of points.”

A similar system has been installed for the filly-filled Kentucky Oaks, with is run the day before the Kentucky Derby.

Locally, the debuting points process has been, if not completely embraced, welcomed with cautious optimism.

“Things will work themselves out,” Calhoun said. “We’re not very concerned about that right now. We’re just trying to get our 3-year-olds started off good and trying to improve.”

Jones said the overhauled qualifying process should work more smoothly than the previous system, but he added that so far, his mounts have been generally untested. As a result, he’s waiting to see how those horses will fare as 3-year-olds in the new system.

“We didn’t run our horses much as 2-year-olds, so they don’t have any points,” Jones said. “It’s really not changing who we’re going into things (at the Fair Grounds).”

But course officials are definitely enthused about the newly instituted process.

“We’re all really happy with the new system,” Fair Grounds Vice President and General Manager of racing Eric Halstrom said.

“As we get later in the season, our races are deemed very important in the new system.”

He echoed the thoughts of Churchill Downs officials, saying the points process should enhance fan interest and boost a 2012-13 Fair Grounds meet that has already been successful despite the rotten weather.

“I think we’re in really good shape,” Halstrom said. “We have some good horses on our grounds, and people are going to watch and come out.”

However, track officials add that at this point, it’s hard to pick clear favorites in terms of which mounts will earn chances at the Kentucky Derby and Oaks.

They said leaders will emerge over the next few weeks of racing, but until that happens, pinpointing favorites will be tough.

Road to the Derby Kickoff Day schedule of races begins at 12:30 p.m., with the first stakes race slated for about 3:55 p.m.