Imagine Saturday’s Louisiana Champions Day at the Fair Grounds as a family reunion for the state’s racing community — except that a rich, old aunt has died without a will, so everyone’s fighting over her estate.
“This is our Breeders’ Cup day when we show off all of our best horses,” said veteran trainer Patrick Mouton of Lafayette. “But the best thing is that there’s more money and maybe a little more prestige involved. You get bragging rights for a year.”
Mouton has three entries Saturday — Catherine’s Dream in the Lassie, Palmy Bay in the Sprint and Louisiana Flyboy in the Classic, Mouton’s first in the 24-year history of the day’s showcase event.
“He’s a late-running horse, and the long stretch at the Fair Grounds should help him,” Mouton said of the son of 2000 Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus. “You win a race like this, and you might keep your owner happy. That’s something that can be hard to do these days.”
There is good extra money on the line Saturday — $1.1 million in total purses for the eight thoroughbred and three quarter-horse stakes, thanks to supplements for Louisiana-breds provided by special taxes and gaming receipts that offset the cuts the track made to its other races. That’s at least a measure of solace during a time when the equine industry in Louisiana is struggling.
According to the Louisiana Thoroughbred Breeders Association, the number of stallions standing in the state has declined from 277 in 2010 to 114, and the number of mares is down to 1,576, which LTBA President Tom Early has called the smallest in recent memory.
That has resulted in a 27 percent reduction in the number of foals since 2010, a number that is already manifesting itself in number of Louisiana-breds in competition.
Mouton used to stable 60-plus horses during meets at the Fair Grounds and Louisiana Downs in Bossier City. This year, he has 22.
“We’re seeing the impact in the amount of money being bet and the size of the fields in some of our races,” LTBA secretary-treasurer Roger Heitzmann said. There are only five entries in the Classic.
“But our horses are still winning seven of 10 races against outside competition,” Heitzmann said. “Our breeding programs are improving the quality of Louisiana-breds, so we’re hoping that helps bring things back.”
The decreased number of Louisiana-breds has prompted officials at both the Fair Grounds and Louisiana Downs to raise the possibility of reducing the number of racing days in the state, a figure currently set by the Legislature — where the horsemen, most of whom want to keep the status quo, have considerable influence.
“We know the tracks would rather just run their casinos than have race days,” said Steve Roe of Bossier City, owner of nine thoroughbreds, including Catherine’s Dream and Palmy Bay. “(The tracks) should be doing more to promote racing to stimulate interest. I have a lot of concerns that the future doesn’t look as bright as it once did.”
Perhaps, but as is hopefully the case in so many things this time of year, on Saturday, Louisiana’s racing troubles will seem miles — make that furlongs — away. There are plenty of interesting storylines that make that possible:
Heitai, a 15-1 winner of last year’s Sprint, has won seven times in 2014 but was upset by Too Dim his last time out. Too Dim’s back for this race as well.
Guadalupe High, the 2013 Ladies Sprint winner, is coming back after an eight-month layoff.
String King, last year’s runner-up in the Classic by a nose, is trying his luck in the Turf but getting a challenge from three-time winner Benwill.
Unbeaten Mr. L.S. Shoe, ridden by meet leader James Graham, has to break from the outside against 13 challengers in the Juvenile.
Sunbean is seeking to top $1 million in career earnings while defending his title in the Classic against Louisiana Flyboy and three other challengers.
Then there is the fellowship the day brings for the state’s racing interests.
Until the competition actually begins.
“We’re all friends until we get in the gate,” said Fair Grounds Hall of Fame jockey Ronald Ardoin, a two-time winner of the Classic. “And then, I don’t know you.”