2022 Louisiana Derby: Asmussen Holds Strong Hand At Fair Grounds

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It’s pretty much a straight drive through city streets to get from the Café du Monde in the French Quarter to Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans. You’re driving through a residential neighborhood and then it just pops up…one of the most historic and beautiful tracks in America.

It’s a place where you can view the horses saddling in the paddock from multiple levels of the grandstand while sampling foods that are unique to Louisiana. Red beans and rice, wonderful gumbo and po’boy sandwiches are available at concession stands.

The Louisiana Derby is the centerpiece of the Fair Grounds meet, and it signals the beginning of the “100-points to the winner” Kentucky Derby prep races, along with the UAE Derby, which takes place earlier in the day. It’s somewhat of a mystery why no Kentucky Derby winner since Grindstone in 1996 has been a Louisiana Derby winner.

There have been some outstanding Louisiana Derby winners over the years, including the remarkable Risen Star in 1988. He was a late-closing 3rd to Winning Colors in Kentucky, and then he was a convincing winner of the Preakness before he romped in the Belmont Stakes by 14 ¾ lengths. His owner/trainer was Louis Roussel III, who was also one of the owners of the Fair Grounds at the time.

Risen Star winning the 1988 Belmont Stakes
1988 Louisiana Derby winner Risen Star won the 1988 Belmont Stakes by a margin of 14 3/4 lengths.

One doesn’t need a crystal ball to realize the void of Kentucky Derby winners since Grindstone is likely to end for the Louisiana Derby. The fact that Brad Cox and Steve Asmussen have been among the dominant trainers at the track in recent years is a major indicator in this direction.

Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher is the winningest trainer in the history of the race with 4 wins, and he will have an entry here, as will fellow Hall of Famer Bill Mott. Last year, the Doug O’Neill-trained Louisiana Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie was a major factor throughout the season. He didn’t win one of the classics, but his resume for the year included a 3rd in the Derby, 2nd in the Preakness, a win in the Pennsylvania Derby and a 4th place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. His legitimacy is unquestionable.

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From a handicapping standpoint, the Louisiana Derby is unique among the big races for 3-year-olds. While we often hear about the long stretch at Churchill Downs, it is actually 112 feet shorter than the 1,346-foot long stretch at the Fair Grounds. Also, in 2020, the race was lengthened to 1 & 3/16 miles, which makes it the longest of the prep races run in the U.S. Logic indicates that this is a good test of perseverance and distance capability.

It should not be concluded, however, that this is a race for deep closers. Most winners in recent years have been on or close to the lead in the stretch, and the last two winners (Hot Rod Charlie and Wells Bayou) have pretty much won in a wire-to-wire fashion.

Favorites to watch at the 2022 Louisiana Derby
This year’s likely favorite is Epicenter, the impressive front-end winner of the Risen Star Stakes, which is the major prep for the Louisiana Derby. His running style and the fact that he is trained by the winningest trainer in the history of the sport (over 9600 wins) in Steve Asmussen are factors that will be strongly in his favor.

Asmussen had the most lucrative year of his career in 2021 with over $31 million in purse earnings. His resume includes wins in the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, but he is 0-for-23 in the Kentucky Derby. If Epicenter continues to impress, he will be among the best horses that Asmussen has ever saddled for the big race in Louisville, and he will have a big chance to succeed.

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The other big horse in the Louisiana Derby is from the barn of guess who?…Brad Cox. The Eclipse Award-winning trainer of the past two years puts forth a horse named Zozos, who is undefeated in two starts and will be in his first stakes race.  His last start was an Allowance race at Oaklawn Park in which the even-money favorite was Barossa, from the barn of Bob Baffert.  Barossa was the early leader until he was passed on the far turn by the stalking Zozos.

From that point, the Cox trainee just widened his margin, and at the wire, he won by 10 lengths.  The move to a Grade 1 stakes race from an Allowance race is a big one, but Zozos has shown that he has a lot of talent and must be watched.

More to watch on Louisiana Derby Weekend
The CNBC telecast of the Louisiana Derby will also include the Fair Grounds Oaks, which is a 100-points-to-the-winner prep race for the Kentucky Oaks. While no Louisiana Derby winner since 1996 has won the Kentucky Derby, Fair Grounds Oaks winners have done remarkably well in the Kentucky Oaks.

In the past 20 years, 19 winners of the Fair Grounds Oaks have run in the Kentucky Oaks. They have produced 6 wins, 3 seconds, and 2 thirds. Why has this race been productive in producing Kentucky Oaks winners at the same time that winners of the Louisiana Derby have not produced a Kentucky Derby winner since 1996? The races have been run on the same race track, yet they have produced remarkably different results.

Is this just a statistical anomaly that is due to change? Logic would say so, as there seems to be no tangible reason why the New Orleans-based races would produce such different results on the first weekend in May.

The major prep race for the Fair Grounds Oaks is the Rachel Alexandra Stakes, which was run on February 19th. The winner of the race was the Brad Cox-trained 17-1 shot Turnerloose, who got up for the win in the final strides.

Missing from that race, however, was Steve Asmussen’s 2-year-old filly champion from last year, Echo Zulu, who will be making her seasonal debut and is a virtual certainty to be a big favorite. If Echo Zulu shows the championship form that led to her wire-to-wire win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, it is likely that the rest of the field is running for second money.

The bottom line is that both races from Louisiana on Saturday are likely to feature favorites from the Asmussen barn. If he is successful with both, he will be well-positioned to attempt the Oaks/Derby double on the first weekend in May.

How to Watch the 2022 Louisiana Derby

Exclusive live coverage of the $1 million Louisiana Derby airs this Saturday, March 26 at 6 p.m. ET on CNBC from Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Louisiana Derby continues NBC Sports’ “Road to the Kentucky Derby” coverage on three consecutive Saturday afternoons. NBC Sports will present the 148th Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 7.

NBC Sports will also present the Fair Grounds Oaks on Saturday, one of the major prep races on the “Road to the Kentucky Oaks.” Coverage will be streamed live on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

Al Bernstein has worked as a statistician on NBC’s horse racing telecasts since the inaugural Breeders’ Cup in 1984.