Derby Trail: Chasing graded earnings

Mucho Macho Man looks to follow up his Risen Star victory at Fair Grounds with a win in Saturday's $1 million Louisiana Derby. AP Photo

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.

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Late March. Early spring. It is the middle of Kentucky Derby prep season, and Fair Grounds' $1 million Louisiana Derby is fast approaching. The sense around the place is one of anticipation, controlled chaos. Trainers are evaluating their runners, planning final starts of the meeting, getting ready to move their operations -- many up to Keeneland in Kentucky, where the meet opens April 8, and then on to Churchill at the beginning of May. This is the last big weekend; after one more card, live Thoroughbred racing is finished here until November.

This year, Fair Grounds increased the value of the Louisiana Derby by $250,000 after lengthening the distance to 1 1/8 miles in 2010. It will be the richest race ever run in New Orleans, the first here worth seven figures, and caps off a 3-year-old prep season that began in January with the Lecomte Stakes and continued to February with the Risen Star. The changes were made to lure the top 3-year-olds in the nation (runners who want to run for the roses must rack up enough graded stakes earnings to earn one of 20 limited starting stalls on the first Saturday in May) and, in some ways, the draw worked; a field of 13 was entered.

Of those runners, however, few are held in nationally high regard. Fans and pundits are hooked on horses like The Factor, Bob Baffert's smoking-hot colt from California, or early Kentucky Derby favorite Uncle Mo. The Factor was awarded a Beyer Speed figure of 103 for his last performance in Oaklawn's Rebel Stakes, while Uncle Mo, never pressed, ran an 89 in his season debut at Gulfstream two weeks ago. In the Louisiana Derby field, only 9-5 morning-line favorite Mucho Macho Man has a Beyer in that range -- a 94, which he earned while winning the Risen Star last month.

Mucho Macho Man, a towering son of Macho Uno who stands more than 17 hands high, is trained by Kathy Ritvo, a heart transplant recipient whose inspiring story is sure to be written over and over again.

"He's really doing well," Ritvo says the morning after she arrives from Florida with her contender. "Hopefully he'll reach his peak when it's time. He's picking up everything now where he knows where he's supposed to run, so taking on a big field is a welcome challenge. He's ready."

Other than Mucho Macho Man, you could throw a dart at the board to pick a winner

-- Trainer Kelly Breen

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."

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If. That's how trainers always worry. What if? They're overthinkers, constantly playing out one-hundred-and-one different scenarios in their minds, attempting to envision the future. They get to be pretty good at this fretting, at analyzing and reanalyzing. Tim Ritchey is no exception.

In 2005, Ritchey won the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, the second and third jewels of the Triple Crown, with Afleet Alex, who ran third in that year's Kentucky Derby. This year he has a son of that runner, Elite Alex, a lightly-raced 3-year-old who could very well bring the Derby victory his sire narrowly missed. Ritchey doesn't want to mess it up.

That's why Elite Alex shipped to Fair Grounds from Ritchey's base at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas for his start in the Louisiana Derby -- because the outside post he drew in last weekend's Rebel Stakes was not the best post in the world to have at Oaklawn, and the track had been playing very much to a speed bias for the last two weeks, and he could have gotten into a traffic jam somewhere at the head of the lane when the horses in front would stop and the true speed, The Factor, had a heck of a shot to keep on running, which he did.

That's what Ritchey says, full of potential developments and doubts, but certain of one thing -- his horse's ability.

"I think he has enough ability to accomplish what we'd like to see to make it in the Triple Crown races, it's just that he's going to have to jump up and do it in the next two starts," he remarks. "I like to have a horse that you can move forward each race and if you look at his races, each one has been a little better. He's moving forward the right way, and I don't want him to peak too soon. I want him to come into himself at the right time, which hopefully will be the first Saturday in May."

Ritchey is in the same boat as Howard, needling the benefit of graded stakes earnings and additional conditioning to move his runner up on the Kentucky Derby list.

"We're at a point with this horse where we've got this shot and maybe the Arkansas Derby to get enough purse money so that we're eligible to run in Kentucky on the first Saturday in May," he says. "So I think this was the right move to make."

With just three starts under his girth, Elite Alex may not be the most experienced of runners, but he's been exposed to a myriad of occurrences. He's run in big fields, he's been on the outside, he's stumbled leaving the gate and had to sit back off the pace and circle horses. Ritchey, always planning, has worked him with horses in race-like conditions, letting him sit back, move between horses, go skimming up along the rail, go swinging along outside. The hope is that, although he's lightly raced, he'll have enough education to get the job done.

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That's also the case with Al Stall Jr.'s trainee, Left. He's not nominated to the Triple Crown series and, like Nacho Business, has only run twice. But he's undefeated.

"We don't have any grand aspirations; we're just trying to win a race here on our home track," Stall says. "Of course, in the back of my mind, I've had luck with allowance winners running well in the Louisiana Derby. Ketchikan ran second coming out of a 'one other than,' and My Pal Charlie was also second in this race coming out of a 'one other than,' same scenario."

Ketchikan finished second in the 2007 Louisiana Derby, My Pal Charlie was the runner-up in 2008. In 2009, Stall trained Terrain to a third-place finish. But for various reasons, none of the three wound up running on the first Saturday in May.

"We don't know how good our horse is," Stall says. "He's done everything we've asked of him, but we're just trying to take advantage of the fact that he's been here since October, training every day, hasn't missed a day."

Historically, this race has been somewhat of a conundrum. Every year it draws legitimate, earnest Kentucky Derby hopefuls, but in ninety-eight editions, only two victors have gone on to win that ultimate trophy. One, Black Gold, ran all the way back in 1924. The other, Grindstone, won in 1996. The most recent Kentucky Derby winner with a decent Louisiana Derby placing in his past performances was Funny Cide, who ran second in 2003. With the recent changes, however, Stall says past facts are irrelevant.

"The history of the race has completely changed since Fair Grounds moved it to this slot," he says. "It was five weeks out from the Derby last year and six weeks out this year, so all that history's out. Back in the day, so to speak, you'd run here and go on to the Blue Grass or Arkansas Derby or the Wood Memorial, but all that's changed now and history's kind of getting further and further in the distance."

He laughs.

"History is history."

Or is it? For in many ways, this is the charm of horse racing. Change occurs, adjustments are made, but other things stay exactly the same. Starts are spaced more judiciously by trainers who get up every day at 4:30 a.m., as they have for ages. Workers are now clocked with digital stopwatches, but a railside view through a pair of strong binoculars is still the best way to see one go. Tradition and modification go hand in hand.

As dawn breaks on the final days of Fair Grounds' 2011 season, racehorses emerge from shedrows and stable areas to run through their paces. Traffic picks up approaching and leaving the track, and the energy on the backside does as well. Heads toss. Tails swish. Bits jingle. High-strung Thoroughbreds skitter along the fence line, like harlequin crabs in an ocean of darkness.

And, as always, somewhere among them, the future Louisiana Derby winner -- a Kentucky Derby hopeful -- moves along.

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.