03/30/2012 1:43PM

Hovdey: On Palm Sunday, Rousing Sermon a good hunch play

Shigeki Kikkawa
Rousing Sermon could be the right horse on Palm Sunday in the Louisiana Derby.

There is no horse racing allowed in New York this Sunday, which is Palm Sunday in the Christian world, because of laws dating back to 1695.

No, really. It’s not an April Fool’s gag. The law reads, in the original: “Be it therefore enacted that there shall be no traveling, servile laboring and working, shooting, fishing, sporting, playing, horse racing, hunting, or frequenting of tippling houses, or the use of any other unlawful exercises or pastimes, by any of the inhabitants or sojourners within this province, or by any of their slaves or servants, on the Lord’s day.”

“The Lord’s day,” as far as the strict Protestants who wrote the law were concerned, was to be each and every Sunday, although the New York calendar is now pared down to just two, for purposes of singling out racetracks – Palm and Easter. As for the list of forbidden activities, just about everything else is okay these days except for horse racing. Especially the tippling.

If we make fun of New York’s quaint Easter week peculiarities it’s only because We (Heart) NY so very much. Other states maintain laws every bit as goofy, not the least of them California, where a seller must disclose that a house might be haunted, where the wearing of a zoot suit is banned (in Los Angeles), and where it is illegal to hunt with a crossbow while drunk. Okay, that last one might be a good idea.

Anyway, New York and California, racing or not, must take a backseat to the Pelican State on Sunday, where the Fair Grounds meet comes to a rousing climax with the $1 million Louisiana Derby along with a supporting card to die for that includes the Mervin Muniz and the New Orleans Handicap, featuring rough and ready older horses with names like Mister Mardi Gras, Mr. Vegas, and Pants On Fire.

(Visitors beware, though. As far as laws on the books, Louisiana takes a harsh view of anyone messing with another feller’s gator, to wit: “Whoever commits the crime of theft of an alligator when the misappropriation or taking amounts to a value of five hundred dollars or more shall be imprisoned, with or without hard labor, for not more than ten years, or may be fined not more than three thousand dollars, or both.” Even if that gator’s got your granny.)

A million bucks buys a lot of baggage, alligator or otherwise, along with an automatic ticket to the field for the Kentucky Derby one month hence. Little wonder that there were 14 entered, half of them with nothing more than a maiden race win to their name. Larry Jones has the favorites in the entry of Mark Valeski and Mr. Bowling, while everyone’s anxious to find out what Cigar Street can do off his exhilarating maiden win. But then, given the circumstances – as well as the reverence with which certain Northern lawmakers hold the day – the Louisiana Derby might be ripe for a Rousing Sermon.

It will be up to Hall of Famer Mike Smith to deliver that message for Larry and Marianne Williams, the colt’s owners and breeders, and their trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, who have left Southern California with the son of Lucky Pulpit in search of keeping Kentucky Derby dreams alive.

Smith, of course, is no stranger to winning million-dollar events. He has got 19 of them on his trophy shelf, including a Kentucky Derby, a Belmont Stakes, and three runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

He has yet to win the Louisiana Derby, though, which must be a simple oversight. In addition to the big one in Kentucky, Smith’s “derby” collection includes three from Florida, a couple tagged Jersey, one each in Illinois and Arkansas, as well as the derbies of Santa Anita, Del Mar, Hollywood, Oak Tree, Sunland, and that one up north with the big name -- El Camino Real.

Throw in a Preakness, a couple of Travers, two Blue Grasses, and an Irish 2000 Guineas, and it’s clear Smith knows what it feels like to sit atop 3-year-old of quality, among them Holy Bull, Coronado’s Quest, Came Home, Thunder Gulch, Unbridled’s Song, Prairie Bayou, Proud Citizen, and Giacomo. Can Rousing Sermon step up to join the band?

“I sure hope so,” said Smith, who will be riding the colt for the first time. “He seems to always be finishing at the end, so longer distances shouldn’t be a question. It’s just a matter of getting the right kind of trip.”

Rousing Sermon was a stalwart performer last fall, winning the California Cup Juvenile and just missing in both the Real Quiet Stakes and the CashCall Futurity. He has yet to fire big this year in two stakes tries at Santa Anita.

“The Fair Grounds is a lot like Churchill, in the surface and the long stretch,” Smith went on. “And with a big field on Sunday there should be quite a bit of speed in there to keep the pace honest.”

Smith did not get a chance to work Rousing Sermon before the colt headed to Louisiana. But he did get a proper introduction.

“I galloped him a mile and a half,” Smith said, confirming that it had been a while since he had lowered his irons for such a task. “I did okay, mostly because he was such a pro.”

As a sidebar to his search for a Triple Crown prospect, Smith also would like to hit the 5,000-win mark for a career that began 30 years ago this June. Smith would be only the 25th jockey in North American history to reach that total. He awoke Friday with 4,997.

“Five thousand will be great,” Smith added. “But the million sounds pretty good, too.”