Full field, points system add spice to Louisiana Derby’s 100th running

NEW ORLEANS — Tom Amoss and Al Stall Jr. have been involved in racing at the Fair Grounds since before they were old enough to drive.

So while the New Orleanians naturally are happy to see the Louisiana Derby grow in stature, they also acknowledge that has made it harder for them to contend in the event, which marks its 100th running Saturday.

Todd Pletcher-trained Revolutionary is the 3-1 morning-line favorite in the field of 14, the first full contingent for a race that is considered a major springboard to the Kentucky Derby.

“I’ve had horses in the Louisiana Derby who have been favored in this race in the past who would have a hard time contending now,” said Amoss, whose entry, Mylute, goes off with 12-1 odds. “But that’s because this has become a great race. I know horses from the Fair Grounds and the Louisiana Derby have not fared that well in the Kentucky Derby, but that day is coming, and probably it will be this year.”

Added Stall, who has two entries — Sunbean and Departing — in Saturday’s 11⁄8-mile main event: “This was never just a local race. But over the years, lots of big outfits have started wintering here, and trainers like Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert have been targeting this race. The Louisiana Derby always had a certain prestige. Now it has even more.”

The reasons are threefold:

Churchill Downs, which has owned the Fair Grounds since 2004, moved the Louisiana Derby from mid-March to the last Saturday of the month, putting it in position to be more of a factor in the Kentucky Derby equation.

Churchill Downs tabbed the Louisiana Derby as one of the seven “second-leg” championship races that are worth maximum points in the new Kentucky Derby qualifying system.

The purse has grown from $600,000 in 2009 to $1 million this year for the second time.

“That $1 million improves everything,” said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, whose Titletown Five is the co-fourth early choice with Departing at 8-1. “But the timing helps, too, along with the fact that New Orleans is more accessible than Florida to ship in horses.”

But Lukas is no fan of the points system, which replaced career earnings as the entry standard for the Kentucky Derby.

“It’s a terrible system because it doesn’t recognize the entire body of work,” he said. “And it forces trainers to do things they never would before. It was made up by a couple of guys sitting in an office who never paid a dime to get a horse in a race. I know they were trying to create some public interest, but they never consulted one person in the industry.”

As a case in point, Lukas offered up not one of his Kentucky Derby contenders but Pletcher’s Shanghai Bobby, last year’s Breeders Cup Juvenile winner who probably needs a top-three
finish in Saturday’s Florida Derby to qualify despite almost $2 million in career earnings.

Pletcher is concerned enough that he’s bringing Rosie Napravnik, the Fair Grounds riding champion, to the Florida Derby instead of having her aboard Palace Malice, whom she rode to a third-place finish in the Risen Star Stakes and is the third choice at 5-1 behind Revolutionary and Bob Baffert’s Code West, the Risen Star runner-up.

Amoss was more measured in his criticism of the points system.

“It doesn’t bother me, because I understand what’s behind it,” he said. “Churchill Downs uses it to threaten the other tracks to simulcast their tracks (the Fair Grounds, Arlington Park and Calder) at the rates they want. It’s either, ‘Do it our way, or you’re not part of the Derby qualifying.’ They’re doing a great job of marketing, but I see through it as a pure business decision.”

No matter how they feel about the points system, all agreed that the Fair Grounds’ move to ramp up interest in Derby day by creating an infield festival with room for 5,000 is a good thing.

“I’ve been going to Louisville since 1977, and it’s a big part of the event,” Stall said. “I don’t see how making an event bigger can hurt anything.”

The infield festival will include concerts by Cowboy Mouth and Flow Tribe, and 17 food trucks and pop-ups will make for plentiful eating choices. With the grandstand already expected to draw a capacity crowd of 9,000, satellite parking lots have been established at the old John F. Kennedy High School on Wisner Boulevard and at 1913 Gentilly Blvd.

“The thing I’ve always liked about Louisiana Derby day is that it’s always brought out really knowledgeable people — people who know horse racing and handicapping,” Amoss said. “Then the infield festival is an even better idea.

“I’m not so blinded to think that there might not be a few glitches. But it’s an idea that’s long overdue, and I think it’s going to be very successful.”