August 18, 2022

Grades have been no barrier to attracting top-level talent to Fair Grounds

Whirlaway at the 1941 Kentucky Derby

Nearly a half-century after the introduction of the graded stakes system in the U.S., the historic Fair Grounds in New Orleans remains in a holding pattern in regards to hosting its first ever Grade 1 race.

Track officials and neutral observers believed and hoped 2020 would be the year that the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) finally made the grade. Alas, when the American Graded Stakes Committee’s list of 2020 races was released in December, the Oaks, won by the likes of Silverbulletday, Ashado, Proud Spell, Rachel Alexandra, and Untapable in the past two decades, remained in Grade 2 limbo.

Critics of the committee’s annual handiwork can continue to scoff, pointing out any race, currently or in retrospect, can wind up a Grade 1 in virtual terms if not officially. Still, there remains a cachet attached to such labels, and Fair Grounds is among a select group of noted American ovals never to have hosted a top-level event.

In contrast, Lone Star Park once hosted a Breeders’ Cup. Hawthorne was a fill-in host to the 1985 Secretariat (G1), Arlington-Washington Futurity (G1), and Arlington-Washington Lassie (G1) after their home track burned. Louisiana Downs, one of several much younger in-state siblings, had its Super Derby deservedly on top of the graded pedestal for a number of years.

Grades come and go, though, and Fair Grounds can at least celebrate the recent elevation of its relatively mature Louisiana Stakes (nee Handicap) to a Grade 3 event for the first time. The $100,000, 1 1/16-mile test for older horses will be run as part of the Lecomte Stakes card on Saturday.

The Louisiana’s place in local and national racing history is secure in that its inaugural running, on Dec. 12, 1942, provided Triple Crown hero Whirlaway with his 23rd and final stakes victory. It was also the 32nd and final win of his 60-race career, and capped a second straight season in which he was voted Horse of the Year.

Ostensibly created as a potential fourth showdown that year between Whirlaway and the leading 3-year-old colt Alsab, the Louisiana Handicap instead turned into an opportunity for “Mr. Longtail,” or “Whirly” as the headline writers preferred, to pad his already fat bank account as the then world’s leading money winner.

“Not since the early twenties, when Black Gold made racing history here and went north to write additional pages, has interest been so high in one horse,” wrote one wire service reporter of the impact on the big horse’s presence in the Big Easy. “In taverns, on street corners and forbidden bookie shops, Whirlaway is the main topic of conversation.”

The gross purse was roughly $17,000 (more than $266,000 in current dollars), and the distance 1 1/8 miles on a track rated slow. Unsurprisingly last in the field of eight early, Whirlaway was along in time to win by 1 1/2 lengths as a 3-5 favorite before a then-record crowd estimated at 20,000. Whirlaway toted top weight of 130 pounds with Wendell Eads in the saddle for owner Calumet Farm and trainer Ben Jones.

Whirlaway proved not to be a prolific sire, dying in France at age 15 in 1953. Ironically that same year, Whirlaway’s biggest-earning offspring, Spur On, won the Louisiana Handicap for his first stakes victory.

The Louisiana Handicap later showcased many of Fair Grounds’ local legends. Tenacious won the race three years in succession from 1958-60, Diplomat Way won in 1968, and Explosive Bid took down honors in 1984. All of them, including Whirlaway, later had Fair Grounds stakes named for them, though only Tenacious remains so honored (the Whirlaway was renamed the Mineshaft [G3]).

Arguably the most noted Louisiana Handicap winner post-Whirlaway was Master Derby, whose above-average career included an upset of Foolish Pleasure in the 1975 Preakness (G1). Thelma Berger is one of only two fillies to have won the race, and though she won only nine times in 80 career starts, her 1951 score was accompanied that season by a victory in the famed Beldame Handicap in New York.

The bottom line through the years is that it hasn’t required a Grade 1 race to attract Grade 1 talent to New Orleans.