Six things I'm looking forward to this week at the Louisiana Derby

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

March 28th, 2017

Five American Thoroughbred racetracks laid out in the 19th century have survived into the 21st without significant re-positioning. I long ago made pilgrimages to the two oldest, Saratoga and Pimlico, have visited Churchill Downs more times than I can recall, and have dropped in at Hawthorne twice when in the neighborhood.

The one of the five that has so far eluded me is Fair Grounds in New Orleans, which officially dates to 1872 and is the third oldest in the country. That will no longer be the case this week when I make the trek south to cover Saturday's $1 million Louisiana Derby (G2) for the title sponsoring blog and

Although a stranger to the actual track, Fair Grounds has at times played a significant role in my life as a racing fan. One of the more affecting moments of my formative years as a follower of the sport was hearing of the tragic fire that destroyed the historic grandstand in December 1993. Having admired the uniqueness and charm of that facility several times on television, it bothers me to this day that I never had the opportunity to see it or experience it in person. Not to mention the thought of all the artifacts and memorabilia forever lost in the inferno.

Not too many years later, I had the opportunity to closely follow Fair Grounds racing as a handicapper for a prominent daily racing publication. For more than seven years, I provided selections for virtually every day of the Fair Grounds winter meet. I can't say my success was great, but it was probably the best track I had the opportunity to cover on a regular basis in that position.

The fields for Saturday's 15-race marathon card have been out for awhile, and here are six things I'm looking forward to seeing and doing this week:

1. Race tactics in the Louisiana Derby -- Although I was clever enough to have supported Girvin in last month's Risen Star (G2) at odds of 8-1, trainer Joe Sharp was perhaps more so when also entering Hotfoot in Saturday's Derby. Without him, speedball Local Hero might very well have run away with the nine-furlong test. But the presence of Hotfoot perhaps makes that a more difficult proposition while giving Girvin a better chance to repeat.

2. A fourth for Pletcher? -- Trainer Todd Pletcher has won the Louisiana Derby three times previously. He's entered two for Saturday, but only Patch appears to be serious threat on paper. The son of Union Rags is a bit of a late developer having not debuted until mid-January and now with only a maiden win to his credit. However, this barn has been red-hot in the past five or six weeks with Kentucky Derby (G1) prep wins in the Southwest (G3), Tampa Bay Derby (G2), and Rebel (G2). Ignore at your peril.

3. Will the Kentucky Oaks (G1) favorite emerge with Unique Bella out? -- The $400,000 Fair Grounds Oaks (G2), which has yielded quite a few Kentucky Oaks winners in the recent past, has as its heavy favorite Farrell, who is now a threat to climb up the Kentucky Oaks rankings following Tuesday's defection of Unique Bella due to shin issues. She had little trouble winning the Golden Rod (G2) at Churchill in November, and has since run away with the Silverbulletday and Rachel Alexandra (G2).

4. A competitive New Orleans H. (G2) -- A pretty good betting race on paper, I'm initially intrigued by the rebound possibilities of Breaking Lucky and Eagle. Breaking Lucky was a huge longshot in the Pegasus World Cup (G1), but did far worse than I would have expected considering his good tries in the Woodward (G1) and Clark H. (G1) last fall. He rates a look at upper single-digits or higher. Eagle was undoubtedly in need of a race when a non-threatening fourth in last month's Mineshaft H. (G3), and I would expect him to strip fitter for this longer test.

5. Soak in the history -- Since we're talking about one of the oldest tracks in the country, I'll be soaking in the atmosphere at this ancient oval as I'm wont to do. The infield is the final resting place for Black Gold and Pan Zareta, and this was also home to the fabulous Risen Star.

6. The tastes and sounds of the Big Easy -- This week also marks my first visit to a city known worldwide for its culinary and musical contributions, and for the less family-friendly entertainment options in and around Bourbon Street. Sampling jambalaya in the French Quarter, the lunch options at Liuzza's by the Track, and the famous jazz scene are on the agenda.

You can follow my coverage of Louisiana Derby Week at the blog, @TwinSpires and @VPHanson, as well as on the Instagram. If you spot me at the track or elsewhere, feel free to stop and say hello.

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