03/18/2010 11:00PM

Louisiana Derby had more than one home


Ask any knowledgeable horseplayer to name the oldest racetrack still in operation in the United States and the response most likely will be Saratoga. And that is the generally accepted answer today.

But Saratoga, which opened in 1864, holds that title on a technicality. The Fair Grounds in New Orleans is really the oldest.

In 1852, 12 years before Saratoga opened, the Union Course debuted on Gentilly Avenue, just north of downtown New Orleans. The track's name was changed to the Creole Course in 1859, but it could not compete with the famous Metairie Course opened in 1838 and soon closed its doors.

In 1863, when the Creole Course was first used as a site for an agricultural fair, locals began calling it "Fair Grounds" and the name stuck.

In 1872, when Metairie closed and was converted into a cemetery, the Louisiana Jockey Club was formed and took over management of Fair Grounds. Racing resumed on April 13, 1872 and that became the accepted date of the birth of the track. But the same grandstands and the same track actually were first used for racing in 1852.

With Fair Grounds preparing to present its signature event, the $750,000 Louisiana Derby, next Saturday, test your knowledge of the track and its history.

1. The entries in Daily Racing Form for March 17, 1920, show the fifth race in "New Orleans" as the "first running" of the Louisiana Derby. That was 90 years ago.

The entries for this Saturday's Louisiana Derby will show it as the 97th running of the historic race. The race was not run in 1921-22 and was also not contested in four of the World War II years in the 1940s.

Where did the additional runnings of the Louisiana Derby come from?

2. When he was 14 years old, he rode his first winner at a recognized racetrack on March 6, 1889, at Fair Grounds. In 1901, he was banned for life for allegedly betting on races in which he was involved.

But in those dozen years he rose to become a major international celebrity - perhaps the first jockey ever to do so. For a time, he dominated racing in California and on the East Coast. Moving to England in 1898, he was aboard five winners in one day at Newmarket and was later offered the job of riding for the Prince of Wales. Name him.

3. The fourth race on March 17, 1924, was the $15,000 Louisiana Derby. At 3:57 p.m. the field was released and Black Gold, breaking from the outside post in a field of 11, quickly vaulted into the lead.

Black Gold never relinquished his position over a muddy track and won, as the chart caller reported, "in a canter."

Two months later, on May 17, Black Gold became the first Louisiana Derby winner to capture the Kentucky Derby. Four days earlier, he had captured the first Derby Trial.

When Black Gold won the Louisiana Derby, however, it was not run at Fair Grounds. Where did the race take place?

4. The first stakes win of this colt's career was track record-breaking win in the 1936 Louisiana Derby.

Two months later he became a sports celebrity who made headlines everywhere he raced after he accomplished the almost unbelievable feat of winning both the Illinois Derby and Latonia Derby (run 300 miles apart) in back-to-back days. Name this horse.

5. Despite its longevity and position on the calendar, the Louisiana Derby seldom has had a major impact on the outcome of the Kentucky Derby.

In the 86 years since Black Gold became the first Louisiana Derby winner to also capture the Louisville classic, only two horses who even competed in the New Orleans race went on to win the Kentucky Derby. Name them.

1. When Damask won the Louisiana Derby in 1920, it was the first time a race of that name had been run in New Orleans. And as late as the 1990s, publications such as the American Racing Manual were showing 1920 as the first year the race was run.

(Six months later, Damask had the distinction of finishing second to Man o' War in the Jockey Club Stakes [now Gold Cup] at Belmont Park. But there were only two horses in that race.)

In 1894, the Crescent City Jockey Club at Fair Grounds inaugurated a race known as the Crescent City Derby. Buckwa, ridden by Roy Williams, won the one-mile, $1,500 race.

The Crescent City Derby was not run again until 1897 when it was lengthened to 1 1/8 miles and continued every year thereafter until 1908. State legislation known as the Locke Law shut down all racing in Louisiana from 1909 through 1914.

Since the Crescent City Derby was considered by historians to be the forerunner to the Louisiana Derby, in later years Fair Grounds added the early runnings to its present derby.

2. James Forman Sloan, who took the name "Tod," began riding at Fair Grounds on Jan. 11, 1889, and finally booted home his first career winner two months later.

Sloan, who popularized the style of riding low and forward in the saddle, became a jockey sensation on both coasts. From 1896-1898, his annual percentage of winners from mounts rose from 30 percent to an amazing 46 percent. Riding in England from 1898-1900, he became a sensation there, as well.

Sloan lived a flamboyant lifestyle with his own personal valet and a woman on both arms. He was the "Yankee Doodle Dandy" of George M. Cohan's popular 1904 Broadway musical, "Little Johnny Jones."

Never to ride again after 1900, Sloan's star power faded slowly over time. He died of cirrhosis in 1933.

3. Black Gold and Pan Zareta, the "Iron Lady" from the previous decade, are the two most legendary horses to compete at Fair Grounds.

Both horses have stakes run at the New Orleans track each year in their honor and both are buried in the Fair Grounds infield. Their graves are now located under the turf course, but the markers have been moved nearby.

To this day, floral wreaths are laid at the markers each year on the days commemorating the two horses.

While Black Gold began his racing career on Jan. 8, 1922, at Fair Grounds and ended it tragically breaking down on Jan. 18, 1929, at Fair Grounds, he won the Louisiana Derby at Jefferson Park in the nearby Jefferson Parish.

Jefferson Park, which opened in 1917, was home to the Louisiana Derby from 1920 to 1931 (the race was not contested in 1921-1922).

4. In what was described by Daily Racing Form's celebrated columnist John Hervey as "the most unprecedented feat in . . . American racing records," Louisiana Derby winner Rushaway won two more of the richest derbies run in 1936 on consecutive days.

On Friday, May 22, Rushaway won the $12,000 Illinois Derby at Aurora Racetrack by 1 1/2 lengths.

After cooling off, the horse was trucked 40 miles to Chicago, where he boarded a railroad boxcar. The train arrived in Cincinnati, 300 miles away, early Saturday morning. Rushaway then vanned across the Ohio River to Latonia Racecourse. That afternoon, he captured the $15,000 Latonia Derby by five lengths.

Rushaway was then famous wherever he went, but those two races took their toll and he was never the same again.

5. When Grindstone won the 1996 Kentucky Derby, he became not only the first Louisiana Derby winner to take home the roses since Black Gold, but the first winner of the Louisville classic to have even run in the New Orleans race since 1924.

In 2003, Funny Cide, who finished third in the Louisiana Derby, won the 129th edition of the Kentucky Derby.

In between the Louisiana Derby and Kentucky Derby, Grindstone ran second in the Arkansas Derby and Funny Cide finished second in the Wood Memorial Stakes.