Fair Grounds opens 142nd meet with Starlight Racing program

Fair Grounds, commonly referred to as the third-oldest racetrack in the country, will kick off its 142nd season of Thoroughbred racing the week prior to the traditional Thanksgiving Day opening with a special Starlight Racing event on Friday.

The 84-day live racing meet will be highlighted by 58 stakes races worth a total of $7.51 million, headlined by the 101st running of the Grade 2, $1 million Louisiana Derby to be run on March 29. Closing day is March 30.

Opening Night will feature a special nine-race Exotic Starlight Racing card that will include two ostrich races and a camel race. First post is 3 p.m. (CST). The Starlight Racing series is the place to 'see and be seen' while enjoying live racing, great bands, mouth-watering dishes from local restaurants, Tujague's, Ho Shun and The Munch Factory, and special drink selections. Clubhouse admission is $15, children ages five to 12 will be admitted for $10, and children under age five will be admitted free. Admission to the Miller Time Beer Garden is $15 and restricted to guests age 21 and older. Grandstand General Admission is $10, with children under age 12 admitted free.

"From our Opening Night Exotic Starlight Racing through the 101st running of the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, we anticipate another successful meet at the Fair Grounds with top-quality racing and marquee social events in New Orleans," Fair Grounds President Tim Bryant said.

The first stakes race of the meet, the sixth running of the $60,000 Mr. Sulu Stakes, will also be contested opening weekend on Saturday. First post is 1 p.m.

Traditionally set on the racing calendar to begin the meet, Thanksgiving Day (November 28) will once again see fans treated to a festive holiday atmosphere and top-quality racing with a 10-race card highlighted by the 88th running of the $100,000 Thanksgiving Handicap, a six-furlong test for top sprinters. First post is 11 a.m. Clubhouse General Admission is $10, and Grandstand General Admission is free.

Thanksgiving Day Clubhouse dining reservations start at $70 per person -- at tables of four or six only -- and go up to $125 per person, depending on the row. Seating is limited and nearly sold out, and reservations are required. Reservations can only be made by phone weekdays (until Friday) or any live racing day (Friday and beyond) from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., at (504) 943-2200. The Grandstand Buffet will be open to the public for $32.

The majority of Fair Grounds stakes races are run on five banner days. Louisiana Champions Day on December 14 comprises 11 stakes for Louisiana-breds worth $1.1 million and is followed by Santa Super Saturday the next weekend, December 21, including four stakes totaling $300,000. Santa Super Saturday features Holiday Family Fun Day on the apron.

Over the course of the meet, Fair Grounds will present 10 graded stakes races in multiple divisions. This series of races, containing preps in multiple divisions to allow horses to run in through a progression of stakes races leading up to Louisiana Derby Day, will be carded on January 18, February 22, and March 29.

"Our daily racing program and attractive stakes schedule will spotlight top-class Thoroughbreds throughout the meet," Fair Grounds General Manager of Racing, Howard "H." Withers, said. "Our daily product will provide competitive racing, and our three graded stakes races that serve as preps for the Kentucky Derby will again attract the top Derby hopefuls in the nation to the Fair Grounds."

Road to the Derby Kickoff Day will take place January 18. Comprising five stakes totaling $625,000, the day will be highlighted by the 70th running of the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes for three-year-olds. The Lecomte Stakes will be the first of three local graded stakes events that will help three-year-olds qualify for the Kentucky Derby in May. The 22nd Silverbulletday Stakes, for three-year-old fillies attempting to race their way to the Kentucky Oaks, and the 28th Grade 3 Col. E.R. Bradley Handicap will also be run.

Louisiana Derby Preview Day consists of five stakes worth $975,000 on February 22. The 41st running of the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes is the second of three preps for Kentucky Derby hopefuls and the final local prep for the Louisiana Derby. The Grade 3 Rachel Alexandra Stakes, the Grade 3 Mineshaft Handicap and the Grade 3 Fair Grounds Handicap will also be run on Louisiana Derby Preview Day.

Louisiana Derby Day on closing weekend brings the curtain down on the season's stakes program with seven stakes events worth a combined $2.51 million. Fair Grounds' marquee event, the Louisiana Derby will offer hopeful three-year-olds a final local chance to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. Under the points-based qualifying system for the Kentucky Derby, the $1 million Louisiana Derby is one of only seven races that will offer the maximum 170 points (100 for first, 40 for second, 20 for third, 10 for fourth).

The Grade 2, $500,000 Fair Grounds Oaks will also be presented on Louisiana Derby Day, along with the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap and the Grade 2 Mervin H. Muniz, Jr. Memorial Handicap. The Fair Grounds Oaks, a race that has remarkably produced five of the last nine Kentucky Oaks winners, will be one of the premier 170-point (100-40-20-10) stakes under the qualifying system for the Kentucky Oaks.

Three-time defending jockey champion Rosie Napravnik, having collected 346 wins over the course of the last three racing seasons, will seek her fourth consecutive Fair Grounds riding title against a typically deep jockey colony. Napravnik won the 2012 Kentucky Oaks aboard Believe You Can, who prepped in the Fair Grounds Oaks.

The top 13 riders in the 2012-2013 standings are all expected back for the 2013-2014 racing season including: James Graham, second to Napravnik in the standings in each of the last two seasons; Shaun Bridgmohan, a top five Fair Grounds rider in each of the last three seasons; Richard Eramia, Miguel Mena, and Brian Hernandez Jr. are among other notable names along with John Jacinto who earned a top-five finish with 69 wins last season.

One familiar face will rejoin the riding colony at Fair Grounds along with a pair of jockeys who will ride consistently at Fair Grounds for the first time. Robby Albarado, a seven-time Fair Grounds riding champion, will winter in New Orleans again this season after spending most of last winter at Oaklawn. David Flores, a popular and established rider in Southern California with multiple Breeders' Cup victories to his credit will ride full-time in Louisiana for the first time along with French-born, Chicago-based jockey Florent Geroux, a multiple graded stakes-winning rider.

As usual, the deep jockey colony is matched by a competitive set of trainers stabled at Fair Grounds this season. Steve Asmussen and Tom Amoss, who tied for top honors in the 2012-2013 season with 42 wins apiece (they also tied one another for the 2000-2001 training title), will again stable large strings of horses on the Fair Grounds backstretch. Asmussen's tie in last meet's standings gave him a sixth consecutive training title. Many familiar barns that consistently impact the trainer standings will also return, including: Al Stall Jr., Larry Jones, Mike Stidham, Bret Calhoun, Steve Margolis, Wayne Catalano and Mike Maker.

Canadian horsemen will be well represented by the major barns of Malcolm Pierce, Josie Carroll and Mike Keogh. The 2013-2014 meet will also see the return of several Chicago-based horsemen who were notably absent when unable to participate in the majority of the 2012-2013 meet due to a quarantine at Hawthorne Race Course. Doug Matthews, Hugh Robertson, Richie Scherer, and Gary Scherer will all be welcomed back to New Orleans this winter. New faces Jimmy Toner (New York) and Jimmy Baker (Kentucky) will stable locally.

For more details about the 142nd Thoroughbred racing season at Fair Grounds, log onto www.FairGroundsRaceCourse.com.