NEW ORLEANS — At about 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Chad Brown, who trains the Kentucky-bred Hyper, texted Fair Grounds and Race Course officials to tell them that his horse, who was scheduled to compete in Saturday’s $150,000, Grade III Fair Grounds Handicap, was pulling out.
“I am going to scratch,” Brown’s text read. “He does not like soft turf.”
Brown was likely spooked by a forecast that predicted sheets of rain to fall on New Orleans late this week and threatened to turn the Fair Grounds track into a sloppy, slow mess. That would have been bad news for everyone involved in Saturday’s Louisiana Derby Preview Day, a slate that features four graded stakes contests, including the 40th running of the $400,000, Grade II Risen Star Stakes
But such dire meteorological prognostications have, at least so far, proved pessimistic. While some rain was predicted for Saturday morning, forecasters believe the sky, albeit cloudy, will stop dripping by the afternoon.
That has jockeys, trainers and track officials optimistic that the dirt won’t be as mushy as Brown thought.
“Right now, it’s looking good,” said trainer Dallas Stewart, whose Golden Soul enters the Risen Star at 20-1. “We’ve been lucky with the weather so far, and the forecast says it will dry up (Saturday) afternoon.”
Tom Amoss, who trains Risen Star entrant Mylute (6-1), expressed similar sentiments.
“The track is sloppy right now, but it should be fine by (Saturday),” he said. “If the forecast holds up, (the track) should be fair for everyone.”
The Risen Star, featuring 3-year-old colts, is the jewel of Derby Preview Day, a slate of 13 races beginning around 12:30 p.m. The contest is part of the elite Kentucky Derby Championship Series that launches Saturday: The 11⁄16th-mile dirt race is worth 85 points toward qualifying for the Derby.
Fortunately for track officials and race fans, as of Friday afternoon Brown hadn’t scratched Risen Star favorite Normandy Invasion, who will go off at 5-2. The overflow field includes the D. Wayne Lukas-conditioned Oxbow (5-1), who scored a blowout victory in the Grade III Lecomte Stakes at the Fair Grounds last month. Two mounts — Mylute and Virginia-bred Code West — will start at 6-1.
Stewart was confident in Golden Soul’s chances despite relatively long odds.
“I feel really good about it,” he said. “I’ve never had a horse train this well for me as this one.”
Louisiana could be represented by Sunbean, who was hoping for a scratch in the crowded field of 15 to earn a spot.
Three other graded stakes are on Saturday’s race card: the $200,000, Grade III Rachel Alexandra Stakes for 3-year-old fillies; the $150,000, Grade III Mineshaft Handicap for 4-year-olds and up; and the $150,000, Grade III Fair Grounds Handicap, also for 4-plus-year-olds.
The 11⁄16th-mile Rachel Alexandra features 5-2 favorite Unlimited Budget, who is being shipped in from Florida for trainer Todd Pletcher. Kentucky-bred Dancinginthecircle will go off at 7-2, while Every Way will start at 6-1.
In the Mineshaft, the Kentucky-bred Mark Valeski is the overwhelming 2-1 favorite, followed by Infrattini at 5-2 and Golden Ticket at 7-2. The Fair Grounds Handicap doesn’t have a clear favorite, but Optimizer leads the pack at 3-1, followed by Willcox Inn at 4-1 and Unlatch at 6-1.
In all, Saturday’s races feature purses totaling more than $1 million and are the final major tuneups before the 100th running of the $1 million Louisiana Derby on March 30.
Al Stall Jr., who trains Unlatch and Sunbean, anticipates a big day of racing, despite whatever rain falls.
“It’s the best card at the Fair Grounds so far — no doubt,” Stall said.
Fair Grounds Vice President and General Manager of Racing Eric Halstrom said Louisiana Derby Preview Day has blossomed into a major event for the facility, one that’s attracting top-level horses, trainers and jockeys from across the country.
“What we hoped would happen is coming true as far as the importance and benefits of (preview day),” he said. “To have 15 horses entered in the Risen Star is unprecedented. We’ve had people calling it one of the best cards in our history, so the news is good there.”