Submitted by Jim Hurley on Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM
Louisiana Derby is a big deal in bayou country
It takes a heavy lift these days for any 3-year-old race not named the Kentucky Derby to stand out from the crowd. Two of them will try this weekend – three if you count the one taking place in a Middle Eastern principality governed by a hereditary emir – followed by two more next weekend and two more the weekend after that.
What happens in Dubai usually stays in Dubai, which is why it will be difficult to take the results of Saturday’s $2 million UAE Derby seriously, at least in the context of the Kentucky Derby. This is primarily because a) the race takes place nine time zones from Louisville, at night, under foreign medication and quarantine rules against horses of indecipherable form, and b) neither Bob Baffert nor Todd Pletcher think it’s a good idea or else they would be there with something.
That leaves Florida and Louisiana in the spotlight with their eponymous Derbies – eponymous being the kind of word most people have to look up before they use it in a sentence, which means they shouldn’t use it at all – and both races have done their best through the years to provide lasting memories.
The Florida Derby, first run in 1952, has been won by eight horses who ended up in the Hall of Fame: Nashua, Needles, Tim Tam, Carry Back, Northern Dancer, Alydar, Spectacular Bid, and Holy Bull. This list does not include Swale, Unbridled, Thunder Gulch, Monarchos, Barbaro, or Big Brown, who franked their winning Florida form in a big way by taking the Kentucky Derby, or 1968 Florida Derby winner Forward Pass, who finished second in the Kentucky Derby to Dancer’s Image before the winner’s test came up positive for phenylbutazone.
Clearly, then, the chisel is always poised for a Florida Derby winner. Chances are their name someday could be written in granite. The best known Louisiana Derby winners, on the other hand, tend to be immortalized in song, their names written in confetti, and remembered as tales almost too tall to be true.
Bob Roesler, the respected sports editor and columnist at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, was one of many writers to record for posterity the juicy saga of Black Gold, winner of both the 1924 Louisiana Derby and Kentucky Derby. Just to review, Black Gold was out of a mare outlawed for racing by the Jockey Club because her owner, the Irish-Native American Al Hoots, refused to honor her claim out of a race in Juarez and hightailed it back across the Texas border. Black Gold ended up running for Al’s widow, Rosa Hoots, and trained by a scoundrel named Hanley Webb, who eventually raced the poor horse to death. Black Gold is buried in the infield at Fair Grounds.
Black Gold was a tough act to follow, but Risen Star did his best in the lead role of an ongoing carnival that ran from his 1988 Louisiana Derby through the Triple Crown. Louis Roussel and effusive Ronnie Lamarque, both famous locals, gave the story its yin and yang, complete with theme song and jockey controversy, while the colt played his part with operatic performances in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
More recently, the million-dollar Louisiana Derby purse has gotten full dramatic value from its winners. In 2011, Rosie Napravnik stole the headlines aboard victorious Pants On Fire at Fair Grounds, propelling them to a start in the Kentucky Derby, while in 2012 it was Hero of Order winning at 109-1 for trainer Gennadi Dorochenko, a former jockey in the Soviet Union when there was a Soviet Union.
Napravnik will miss the Louisiana Derby this weekend, but for all the right reasons. She will be back aboard Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Shanghai Bobby in the million-dollar Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park in an attempt to throw cold water on the skeptics who see the son of Harlan’s Holiday and reigning division champ as pedigree challenged when it comes to a serious 1 1/8 miles. This would come as news to those who bet on Harlan’s Holiday when he won the 2002 Florida Derby, but that’s why they will run the race.
“He’s a horse that doesn’t get much respect, even though he was the 2-year-old champion,” said Frank Brothers, who trained 1991 champion 3-year-old Hansel. “He’s got to prove he can get the distance, but he’s a colt who always give you full value.”
Brothers, whose sabbatical from training has now lasted four blissful years, gets credit for recommending the purchase of the young Shanghai Bobby by the Starlight Stable. As a man who has been there and done that, he doesn’t go out on too many limbs.
“It’s hard to put those things into words,” Brothers said, “but he just had the ‘wow’ factor when I saw him. Of course, there were a few others in which I saw almost the same thing, but not exactly, and they didn’t work out like him.”
Brothers, the grandson of a New Orleans bookmaker, was already well known as a top trainer by the time he finally plugged a hole in his r é sum é and won the 2000 running of the Louisiana Derby with Mighty. The colt, owned by Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider, had the style and pedigree to be a contender in the Kentucky Derby, but he went wrong in the Blue Grass and never made the race.
“I’d taken a shot to win the Louisiana Derby a couple times before that,” Brothers said. “Dansil was third and later won the Arkansas Derby. I suppose in the big picture winning the Louisiana Derby isn’t anything like a Triple Crown race, but it sure is for a homeboy. It’s one of the most satisfying feelings I’ve ever had.”
Those feelings will be up for grabs again Saturday.