Plenty on tap for Louisiana Derby day

NEW ORLEANS — Saturday is going to be a huge day at the Fair Grounds.

At least that’s what race course officials are hoping for. At a news conference in the winner’s circle Monday, representatives from the track, city hall, the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. and food and beverage vendors touted Saturday’s 100th running of the Louisiana Derby and the Fair Grounds’ first infield festival.

“It really is a pleasure to be a part of this,” said Mark Romig, president and CEO of the marketing group. “We have the beginning of something we think will stick.”

Perhaps lost in all the hoopla is that, when it’s boiled down to the basics, Saturday will feature a huge card of races — not just the Louisiana Derby. The slate includes 13 contests, including seven stakes races, four of which are graded.

“What we’ve done with this makes it one of the biggest days of racing in the state,” Fair Grounds President Tim Bryant said. “There’s always excellent racing on Louisiana Derby day. It’s a great card to bet on.”

While the Grade II Derby is a crucial step in the new Road to the Kentucky Derby series, Saturday’s other races carry their own weight, beginning with the other Grade II contests — the $400,000 Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap, the $400,000 New Orleans Handicap and the $500,000 Fair Grounds Oaks.

And in terms of quality, Saturday promises to be a solid day of racing.

“I’ve seen the potential fields for the day, and I’m very impressed,” said Tom Amoss, the second-ranked trainer in the Fair Grounds’ 2012-13 meet. “It could go down as one of the strongest Louisiana Derby days ever, at least in my time at the track.”

Fellow trainer Michael Stidham, who also will have entries in the Derby and Muniz, said bettors thrill in the opportunities to win big on Derby day but said the top race overshadows the others in a way.

“They are somewhat overlooked,” he said. “But for the general fan, it’s not overlooked. For the daily gamblers and the people all over the country who are involved in racing, people love this card because there’s so many opportunities to bet and win.”

Saturday’s second-biggest contest might be the 46th running of the Fair Grounds Oaks, the filly parallel to the Derby. Whichever 3-year-old wins virtually will be guaranteed a spot in the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs on May 3, the day before the Kentucky Derby. This year’s field includes Unlimited Budget, who is third in the Road to the Kentucky Oaks points and is conditioned by Todd Pletcher, one of the nation’s most successful trainers. Pletcher also will have two mounts in the Louisiana Derby.

Saturday also features the 88th New Orleans Handicap, one of the country’s richest and most prestigious contests for older horses. The Muniz Handicap is the card’s premier turf race and will run for the 21st time. The other stakes contests are the $60,000 Costa Rising Stakes, the $75,000 Crescent City Oaks and the $75,000 Crescent City Derby, all of which feature only Louisiana-bred mounts.