NEW ORLEANS — As dusk settled over the Fair Grounds on Saturday, attendees at the 22nd Louisiana Champions Day lined the winner’s circle as Star Guitar, the most successful Louisiana-bred mount in history, paraded around the ring as the day’s honoree.
Spatterings of applause and the clicking of cameras accompanied Star Guitar just before the running of the $150,000 Louisiana Champions Day Classic, which the legendary horse won a record five times before being retired earlier this year.
Minutes later, Heavy on Themister and jockey Rosie Napravnik won Saturday’s edition of the Classic, perhaps inheriting the de facto state crown from Star Guitar on Louisiana Champions Day, an event featuring only Louisiana-bred horses.
“He ran such a game race,” Napravnik said of Heavy on Themister in the winner’s circle. “He is a really neat horse, and watching some of his past races, he just puts out every time, and it was a very game effort.
Themister trainer Shawn David lauded the effort of Themister, who entered the race at 5-1 odds.
“He’s a gutsy little (horse),” David said. “He’s all heart, and he’s a fun horse to be around.
“To be honest, he is a really easy horse to train,” David said. “When you get a horse like that, he just loves his job, you just put the tack on, and we are just thrilled to have him and awfully excited about him.”
In one of the tightest Champions Day Classic runs in recent memory, Heavy on the Mister worked his way to the inside and held off Watch My Smoke, who was jockeyed by Brian Hernandez Jr. and trained by Michelle Lovell. Smoke, posting 6-1 odds, tried to overtake Themister from the outside on the homestretch but couldn’t quite pull off the comeback. Get in Da House finished third after starting at 7-2 odds, while pre-race favorite Populist Politics (3-1) suffered a horrible start and finished last.
It was the highlight of a monster day for Napravnik, who posted three wins, two places and two shows Saturday. She also triumphed in the day’s fourth contest, the $100,000 Louisiana Champions Day Ladies, which featured only fillies and mares. Napravnik rode Ladyzarbridge to victory for trainer Eddie Johnston, duplicating a feat she accomplished two years ago.
Napravnik then won the ninth race, the Champions Day Juvenile Stakes, aboard Hero Force, before claiming the day’s most-sought-after crown, the Classic.
Napravnik, the top female rider in the country, entered the day leading the Fair Grounds jockey standings with 14 wins (for a 29-percent victory percentage) and $375,860 in purses won.
Louisiana Champions Day has become one of the highlights of the Fair Grounds’ winter meet by giving local jockeys, trainers and owners a chance to prove that the state is a rising force on the horse-racing circuit.
“It’s a showcase for state-bred horses and shows how hard people from Louisiana are trying to improve (the state’s) program,” Lovell said. “This day is great for the Louisiana program.”
In the other feature race of the day, the Louisiana Champions Day Turf, 9-5 favorite and defending champion String King came from behind to win the $100,000, one and one-16th mile contest.
Lovely Vin, who went off at 8-1 and was jockeyed by Napravnik, led for much of the race but faded down the home stretch. String King, ridden by James Graham and trained and owned by Charles Craig Smith, caught Vin, who’s trained by Tom Amoss, from the outside and nosed out the 3-year-old by half a length to claim the $60,000 winner’s payoff. Brett Brinkman-trained Sadie’s Soldier placed third with Kerwin Clark aboard after starting with 5-1 odds.
“I was thinking that I wasn’t going to catch (Lovely Vin), because he spurted way from us real quick,” Graham said. “I was hopeful that (String King) would finally got into gear, and he did around the eighth pole.
“This horse has an answer for pressure. The more you ask, the more you are going to find.”
Smith said: “It’s all horse. I’m just along for the ride.”
In all, 13 races went off at the Fair Grounds on Saturday, including eight thoroughbred stakes contests.
In addition to honoring Star Guitar, Saturday’s festivities also recognized members of all five branches of America’s armed forces. For each race, one member of the military presented the top horses with their trophies or awards. The recognition event was sponsored by Louisiana Thoroughbred Breeders Association, adding another layer of local pride.
For the Classic, the day’s feature race, Air Force Maj. Stephen Luebbert did the honors and said he and his fellow military members were blown away by the local hospitality.
“This is the first time they’ve done this, and it means a lot to us,” Luebbert said. “It was great they’ve had all five branches and not just the Army. Since last night, they’ve gone out of their way to make us feel special. We’re really thankful for the opportunity, and we’ve really enjoyed it.”
But in a way, the real hero of the day was Star Guitar, whose presence inspired the competitors who hoped to follow in his esteemed footprints. Lovell said she and others involved locally just hope they can achieve the type of success Guitar did.
“That horse is awesome,” she said. “He was one of the best races in Louisiana, and one of the best horses in the country. He really helped generate enthusiasm for the Louisiana-bred program.”