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.

Breeders’ Cup preps reach crescendo with Fall Stars Weekend at Keeneland

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To the horse racing world, Keeneland is Disneyland. Everything about the Keeneland experience tells you that you are in a special place where the world revolves around thoroughbred racing and breeding.

Take Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, for example. Although it’s in a relatively small marketplace, it can handle 747 jets, because wealthy owners attending the horse sales often arrive in a jumbo jet with a large entourage. When you leave the airport, you are at the intersection of Man o’War Boulevard and Versailles Road. You’re literally across the street from Gate 1 of Keeneland Race Course. Keeneland, by the way, is adjacent to the legendary Calumet Farm. Venturing out onto various side streets, you will almost stumble upon some of the most famous breeding facilities in the world. In the paddocks of these farms, the vision of mares and their foals frolicking is commonplace, looking like a scene from a movie.

Keeneland is unique, as its elegance and its racing exist side by side with its primary purpose: being a place where millions of dollars change hands on a regular basis in the sales pavilion. A countless number of legendary horses had their careers begin with their purchase in that pavilion. Unlike venues in places like New York and California, where racing is conducted virtually year-round, racing at Keeneland is held for three weeks in the spring and three weeks in the fall.

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The fall meeting is situated perfectly to provide final prep races for many of the horses who are pointed to a performance in the Breeders’ Cup. In a span of 3 days, from October 7th to 9th, Fall Stars Weekend will feature 9 different “Win and You’re In” races in nine different Breeders’ Cup divisions. Normally, these would be very attractive races with large purses, but when you add in the fact that the Breeders’ Cup will be held at Keeneland this year, they are even more attractive. These races offer the prospect of having a horse get a final prep at Keeneland, stay stabled in the Lexington area, and then compete in the Breeders’ Cup, all in a four-week span. For those based at Keeneland, it means they will just have a brief walk through the magnificent stable area to get to the location where they will be racing.

History of The Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland

The first Breeders’ Cup held at Keeneland was the 2015 edition, and the decision to hold the event there was controversial. Many in the racing world felt that the facility was too small, as it could not hold the large crowds of Churchill Downs and Santa Anita. Brilliant management at Keeneland led to the attendance in the main building being limited, with satellite locations on the grounds handling the overflow of a total crowd of about 40,000. It was a comfortable event to attend, helped in no small part by the fact that the star of the show was the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. American Pharoah lived up to his billing, turning in a dominant performance to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the final race of his career. The event returned to Keeneland in 2020, but attendance was limited due to the pandemic. Once again, however, the star of the show delivered, as Kentucky Derby winner Authentic capped off his career with a win in the Classic.

Fall Stars Weekend will be featured in two telecasts, to be shown at 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday on CNBC. Each day will feature two live races, along with highlights of some of the other “Win and You’re In” races from the weekend.

RELATED: Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

Saturday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

On Saturday, the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity will be shown live. The winner will gain entrance to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The likely favorite will be the Todd Pletcher-trained Forte, who was a dominant winner of the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. Pletcher has another interesting prospect in Lost Ark, who is 2-for-2 lifetime, including a runaway win in the Sapling Stakes at Monmouth in his last start. Bob Baffert will be shipping in two juveniles for a possible start in the Breeders’ Futurity. Most notable of these is Carmel Road, who captured a maiden race at Del Mar by 8 ½ lengths in his last start. The other possible Baffert starter is National Treasure, who captured a 6 ½ furlong Maiden race at Del Mar in a fast time in his only career start. Another youngster pointed to this race is Frosted Departure, from the barn of Ken McPeek. This one captured an allowance race at Churchill Downs by 9 ¼ lengths last time out.

The other live race on Saturday’s telecast is the Coolmore Turf Mile, which is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. This is always a contentious race, and some veteran campaigners who haven’t lost a step highlight this year’s field. One of those vets is the Bill Mott-trained Casa Creed, who won the Fourstardave Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. Major turf races at this time of year frequently feature Chad Brown trainees, and this race is no exception. His top two probables here are Emaraaty, who won the Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga in his last start, and Masen, who won the Poker Stakes at Belmont earlier this year. Paulo Lobo will return with In Love, who won this race last year.  Finally, how about a horse who has been 1st or 2nd in 10 of 12 lifetime starts at 1 mile on turf? That’s trainer Michael McCarthy’s veteran Smooth Like Strait. This one is a wide-open affair with some worthy contenders, to be sure.

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Sunday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

The first live race on Sunday’s telecast from Keeneland will be the Bourbon Stakes, for 2-year-olds on the turf. It is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Some key trainers dominate the storylines in this race. Mark Casse has won the Bourbon Stakes in 4 of its last 7 runnings, and he will run Boppy O, the winner of the With Anticipation Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. McPeek is another 4-time winner of the Bourbon. He won last year with Tiz The Bomb, who then went on to finish 2nd in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. His 2 probables for the race are Rarified Flair (2nd in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile last out) and B Minor (won a Maiden race on dirt at Churchill Downs in his last start). It also should be noted that North America’s all-time leading trainer in wins, Steve Asmussen, will have two probable entries in Red Route One and Gigante. Red Route One won a Maiden race at Kentucky Downs in his last, while Gigante was the winner of the Kitten’s Joy Stakes at Colonial Downs in his last appearance. Finally, there is Brendan Walsh, who seems to always be a factor in Kentucky, and especially in turf races. He presents Reckoning Force, who won that $500,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile in his last out.

The show-topper on Sunday is the venerable Juddmonte Spinster Stakes. Back in 1984, Princess Rooney posted a win in the Spinster as her final prep before winning the inaugural running of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Other notables who have won this race in their final prep before winning the Distaff include Bayakoa, Paseana, Inside Information and Blue Prize.

This year’s Juddmonte Spinster features a matchup between two of the top females of the past couple of years in Letruska and Malathaat. Letruska won the Spinster last year on her way to an Eclipse Award as top older female dirt horse. This year, she has posted 2 wins and a third in 4 starts. Malathaat won the 2021 Kentucky Oaks and was 3rd in the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. She enters this race off a win in the Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga.

This weekend presents the final North American “Win and You’re In” opportunities for the Breeders’ Cup. In New York, California, and Kentucky, 14 horses will gain entry into the “Big Dance” of Thoroughbred Racing. Most of us will be getting a case of “Breeders’ Cup Fever” this weekend, as the reality of those races on the first weekend of November draws ever so much closer.

Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

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PARIS – Alpinista made light work of the rain and heavy ground to narrowly win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Jockey Luke Morris attacked heading into the last furlong and the 5-year-old mare just held off a late charge from Belgian jockey Christophe Soumillon on Vadeni and last year’s 80-1 winner Torquator Tasso, ridden by veteran Italian jockey Frankie Dettori.

“I had a beautiful draw in stall six and after being perfectly placed, there was a second when I thought we were getting drawn into it too early,” Morris said. “But once she had taken charge, I was able to sit on her from 100 meters out.”

Morris felt the conditions would have made it harder for Alpinista to attack the way she did.

“I was concerned when all that rain came but the race went very smoothly,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how it could have in a 20-runner Arc. It was incredible.”

Alpinista was among the pre-race favorites.

“If it hadn’t been my horse, I would have thought it was going to win every inch of the way, but when it’s your own of course it’s a nightmare,” Alpinista trainer Mark Prescott said. “I didn’t think all that rain would help, but she’s never traveled better and has come on with each race.”

It was not yet clear if Alpinista will next race at the Breeders’ Cup or the Japan Cup next month.