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Fair Grounds kicks off 138th season

The historic New Orleans Fair Grounds will open the gates for its 138th season of live racing on Friday, its earliest start date ever. Opening day falls one week earlier than last year and well ahead of the old Thanksgiving Day opener of years past. The 85-day meet runs through March 28.

Friday also is Day One of the two-day Breeders' Cup World Championships from Santa Anita in Southern California. Those races will be showcased at Fair Grounds, with post times from New Orleans staggered with those from Santa Anita so patrons won't miss any of the action from either locale.

First post for Friday's nine-race program is 1 p.m. (CST), while on Saturday, first post at Fair Grounds is 12:30 p.m.

Friday's feature is the $60,000 Blushing K. D. H. for distaffers at about 1 1/16 miles on the turf. Top threats in the 10-horse field include MUCH OBLIGED (Kingmambo), a close third to Princess Haya (Street Cry [Ire]) and champion Forever Together (Belong to Me) in the Canadian S. (Can-G2) last time out; Ellis Park Turf S. heroine FINAL REFRAIN (Lion Cavern), who was runner-up in last year's Blushing K. D.; Grade 1-placed NEVER RETREAT (Smart Strike), coming off a third in the Illinois Owners S.; and LOVE TO TELL (Stage Colony), a two-time stakes winner at Fair Grounds who has been freshened since her runner-up effort in the Claiming Crown Tiara S. in July.

The track's signature event, the Louisiana Derby (G2), will have a new look this season. In addition to boosting the purse to $750,000, the track has also lengthened the three-year-old fixture to 1 1/8 miles and pushed it back to March 27, five weeks prior to the 2010 Kentucky Derby (G1).

The significant changes to the Louisiana Derby and accompanying races, as well as the addition of two new dirt races for fillies and mares, highlight a record $7.24 million, 66-race stakes schedule.

In recent years, the Louisiana Derby, which produced Kentucky Derby winners Black Gold (1924) and Grindstone (1996), had been a $600,000 race over 1 1/16 miles and was carded seven weeks prior to the Kentucky Derby. The momentous switch of the 97th Louisiana Derby to closing weekend, along with moving the $400,000 Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) to headline a stakes quartet for fillies and mares on March 26, has altered both series of races. Three-year-old races such as the $100,000 Lecomte S. (G3), now one mile and 40 yards, and Risen Star S. at 1 1/16 miles will move to January 23 and February 20, respectively.

The Louisiana Derby, one of 10 graded stakes run at the meet, is the centerpiece of six stakes events on the March 27 program. Other showcased affairs include the $500,000 Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial H. (G2) for older horses at about 1 1/8 miles on the Stall-Wilson turf course and the $500,000 New Orleans H. (G2) for four-year-olds and up at 1 1/8 miles on dirt.

The Muniz is the marquee turf race of the season, which will feature a total of 24 turf stakes. At least one stakes event over the Stall-Wilson turf course will be contested on 17 of 21 weeks this season.

Fair Grounds has added a pair of yet-to-be-named dirt stakes for fillies and mares -- a $100,000 affair at 1 1/8 miles on December 19, and a 1 1/16-mile race worth $200,000 on March 13, three weeks prior to Oaklawn Park's Apple Blossom H. (G1).

Fair Grounds will no longer conduct main-track races at one mile, eliminating the need for the alternate finish line that was previously used only for that distance.

For the first time, jockeys at Fair Grounds will be required to use Pro-Cush riding crops in the first two races every day.

Pro-Cush crops are "more forgiving and have less concussion," Fair Grounds Vice President and General Manager of Racing Eric Halstrom said.

The move to Pro-Cush is reflective of a larger effort by Fair Grounds' parent company, Churchill Downs Inc., to ensure safety and integrity at all CDI racetracks. Fair Grounds officials will solicit feedback from riders throughout the season to help determine whether to eventually require the Pro-Cush crops in every race.

On the last race of every card, Fair Grounds will offer a Super Hi-5 wager, which requires bettors to select the top five finishers in order. The Racing Office has committed to offering the largest fields possible in the finale each day, an effort that will also appeal to players of the Pick 4 and Pick 6 wagers that end with the last race. Because of the Super Hi-5, the superfecta will not be offered on the last race. There is a $1 minimum on the Super Hi-5 and there will be a carryover on days when there are no winning tickets.

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas is among the horsemen stabling at Fair Grounds for the first time this winter. Lukas will have 30 stalls. Other trainers that are either here for the first time or returning for the first time in several years include northeast Louisiana native and Fair Grounds Hall of Fame member Bobby Barnett, a former assistant to Lukas; New Iberia, Louisiana, native Eric Guillot; former high school teacher and principal Tom McCarthy, whose prize horse GENERAL QUARTERS (Sky Mesa), winner of the Blue Grass S. (G1), will point to the New Orleans H.; veteran New York trainer Michael Miceli; Helen Pitts-Blasi; D. Michael Smithwick Jr., a former steeplechase jockey who has trained throughout the country and son of Hall of Fame trainer D. Michael Smithwick; and Michael Tammaro, the winner of multiple Turfway Park training titles who learned from his trainer father, John Tammaro.

The already formidable jockey colony at Fair Grounds will have even more depth this year as the winter base for Victor Lebron and Orlando Mojica, two riders typically seen among the leaders at Turfway Park and Ellis Park. Lebron is a native of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Mojica, born in Puerto Rico, won the Ellis Park title in 2007, the Hoosier Park titles in 2007 and 2008 and the Indiana Downs title in 2008. Returning to Fair Grounds after several years in Chicago will be Chris Emigh, winner of multiple stakes at Fair Grounds when he rode here regularly in the mid-1990s.

In another important new development for this meet, Fair Grounds will offer high definition (HD) simulcasts of all of its races, becoming the second Churchill Downs Inc. track, and only the third in North America, to offer a high definition simulcast signal to on-track and simulcast patrons. The HD simulcasts will be available at select simulcast outlets, throughout Fair Grounds' Louisiana OTB network, and at several on-track locations.


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