Derby Trail: Chasing graded earnings
Updated: March 25, 2011, 10:34 PM ETBy Claire Novak | Special to ESPN.com
AP PhotoMucho Macho Man looks to follow up his Risen Star victory at Fair Grounds with a win in Saturday's $1 million Louisiana Derby.NEW ORLEANS, LA -- Every morning down on Moss Street in New Orleans, bells ring out from Our Lady of the Rosary's copper dome. The deep strokes carry far -- across the peeling paint of faded bungalows, around the posts of wrought iron fences, through air so heavy you can almost taste the moisture. Four five six o' clock. The first Thoroughbreds come slowly, silently, stealing up through dense mist to wait at the gap. Their burnished sides move in and out, softly with each breath. Their riders sit with practiced patience. As the final golden tones linger, the racetrack opens for training. It's been this way for more than 100 years, since 1852 when the first swath of land was carved into what would become Union Race Course, later renamed Creole, and finally, in 1863, Fair Grounds. Through decades and milestones of human society, through war and peace, through the invention of horseless carriages and the telephone and radios and televisions, through the Roaring 20s, the Great Depression, WWII, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Eighties and Nineties, into the present, these things remained -- the morning, the bells, and the congregating; horse and human and the sound of hoofbeats on an old dirt track.
“While the field is large, other entrants include runners that are barely stakes tested, a horse that has yet to break its' maiden, and one that was sent off at odds of 121-1 in his last start. "Other than Mucho Macho Man, you could throw a dart at the board to pick a winner," says trainer Kelly Breen, who brings in two Louisiana Derby starters, Nacho Business and Pants On Fire. The latter ran sixth in the Risen Star, and came out of the race with a lung infection. The former has only made two starts thus far. With the wide-open field in mind, trainer Neil Howard is well aware of how his runners -- Machen and Wilkinson -- rate. Stronger than average, they've both trained well here during the winter. Wilkinson won the Lecomte, while Machen ran fourth in the Risen Star. But Howard is also aware of the fact that this race is his final shot at making the more important Derby -- the Kentucky one. "This is the last chance, more or less," he says. "You could still run in another race, but it's going to be a squeeze. I'm not saying we wouldn't; I'm not even going to think about that until after this race. But the million dollar purse is a good thing, you know. You could still get graded earnings even if you don't win the race, if your horse runs good, and our horses both need graded earnings." Howard is a big fan of Fair Grounds' changes to the Louisiana Derby format. He thinks it will gain even more significance as a key Kentucky Derby prep within the coming years because the three-race series culminating in 1 1/8 miles is ideal. The six weeks between this race and the first Saturday in May are not viewed as a complete disadvantage by every trainer. These days, change and caution are both necessary. "Racetracks have to tweak things because of changes in the industry and in the trends of training," Howard says. "We've always been careful, but today we're being more cautious than ever and we're not racing horses as much. Still, you like to know you've got at least one mile-and-an-eighth race under your horse before the Kentucky Derby if you make it to the Kentucky Derby."
Other than Mucho Macho Man, you could throw a dart at the board to pick a winner” -- Trainer Kelly Breen