03/28/2013 3:32PM

Louisiana Derby: With full field, wide-open race is a bettor's delight


NEW ORLEANS – Strange, this 100th running of the Louisiana Derby. The prep, the Risen Star, was won by the longshot Ive Struck a Nerve, who subsequently was injured and is off the Kentucky Derby trail. And since the Risen Star field found the first eight finishers separated by less than four lengths, five of them are signed up for another go-round Saturday. Why not?

Compelling, this Louisiana Derby. A full field of 14 is entered, and there’s something for everyone. From a betting standpoint, it’s the best gambling race of the Derby preps so far, with the invading Revolutionary the 3-1 favorite of track linemaker Mike Diliberto, who has only four others less than 10-1.

But, most significantly for owners, trainers, and jockeys, the Louisiana Derby holds rich rewards. First prize in the Grade 2, $1 million race is worth $600,000, and with 170 points on the line toward a berth in the May 4 Kentucky Derby, the winner’s share of 100 points is more than enough to secure a spot in the 20-horse field at Churchill Downs.

So, the race is a little like this city itself – strange, compelling, and with a whole lot of visitors.

[LOUISIANA DERBY: Get Fair Grounds PPs, watch video previews]

If anyone can empathize with a pub crawl down Bourbon Street, it’s Revolutionary, who overcame a nightmarish trip when knifing between rivals to win the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct on Feb. 2, looking as though he were trying to find a safe haven from drunken revelers.

Off since then by design, Revolutionary is a tough horse on which to get a read. While he did prevail under adverse conditions, the Withers field looks inferior to what he’ll face here. This will be his first start outside New York.

What he did gain last time, though, according to his trainer, Todd Pletcher, was experience, and lots of it.

“The experience he got allowed us to check off a lot of boxes: Can he handle a big crowd of horses? Can he take dirt in his face? Can he split horses?” Pletcher said by telephone Thursday. “Watching the race, I went from thinking, ‘This is a nightmare,’ to being very impressed he won because of all the adversity.”

Pletcher also will send out Palace Malice, third in the 1 1/16-mile Risen Star in his first start around two turns.

“I thought he ran well,” Pletcher said. “He was a little farther back than I anticipated. The way he’s trained coming into this race, I think he’s capable of a stronger performance than last time.”

Pletcher will not be here, though. He is remaining at Gulfstream to saddle Shanghai Bobby in the Florida Derby, so assistant Whit Beckman will supervise here.

Code West, second by a nose in the Risen Star, returns for trainer Bob Baffert, who thinks “the farther, the better for him.”

“He just goes steady,” Baffert said. “The distance should help him.”

The other Risen Star alumni are Golden Soul (sixth), Mylute (seventh), and Proud Strike (eighth), all of whom finished no more than 3 1/2 lengths behind Code West.

“We know we have to run good if we want to run in the Kentucky Derby,” said Tom Amoss, the trainer of Mylute. “This is a good spell-check to see if we belong.”

Like Pletcher, trainer Al Stall Jr. sends out two runners – Departing and Sunbean – and though both are making their graded-stakes debuts, they are in top form, have trained well this week, and were made late nominees to the Triple Crown last weekend for $6,000 each.

Departing is unbeaten in three starts.

“He’s always drawing off,” Stall said. “I like the way he’s been finishing. He’s been doing everything in hand. He just does everything so right.”

Sunbean, a Louisiana-bred, is a nose away from being unbeaten in four starts.

“He acted like he’d be speed crazy when we first had him, but he’s learned to switch off instantly,” Stall said.

Another live local threat is Ground Transport, 2 for 2 since going two turns. He drew poorly, however, landing post 13 of 14.

Outside of him is Nina’s Dragon, second in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate last time out.

“It’s going to be a tough post,” said his rider, Julien Couton.

Titletown Five is making his second start following a layoff of more than four months. He never has gone farther than seven furlongs but should at least be prominent during the early going.

Brazilian Court was second on synthetic at Ocala last time out, his second start since being claimed and his first try around two turns. He pummeled maiden claimers at Gulfstream in his prior race.

Whiskey Bravo was a soundly beaten fourth behind Departing in the Texas Heritage at Sam Houston on March 2.

Hip Four Sixtynine took seven starts to beat maidens, which he did most recently in a sprint.

The Louisiana Derby is the ninth race on a 13-race card that begins at 1 p.m. Central. Post time for the Louisiana Derby is 5:44 p.m., and it will be shown on the NBC Sports Network in a one-hour telecast beginning at 5 p.m. Central that also includes the Florida Derby.

There are three other Grade 2 stakes at Fair Grounds, beginning with the Fair Grounds Oaks, a major prep for the May 3 Kentucky Oaks. Unlimited Budget and Flashy Gray head that field. Next comes the New Orleans Handicap for older horses, featuring Mark Valeski, Graydar, Flat Out, and Bourbon Courage.

Following the Louisiana Derby is the Mervin Muniz Handicap for older turf horses, including Amira’s Prince and Optimizer.

Those four stakes comprise a pick four that has a guaranteed pool of $150,000.

But wait, there’s more! In celebration of this being the 100th running of the Louisiana Derby, Fair Grounds will open the infield for a music festival featuring local favorites Cowboy Mouth and Flow Tribe and food trucks. General admission infield tickets are $25.