11/25/2010 4:32PM

Mambo Galliano cruises in Thanksgiving Handicap

Lynn Roberts
Mambo Galliano, with James Graham up, wins the Thanksgiving Handicap.

NEW ORLEANS – Louie Roussel used to own Fair Grounds Race Course. Thursday, on opening day at Fair Grounds, the Roussel’s Mambo Galliano owned the Thanksgiving Handicap, scoring a four-length victory in the $60,000 sprint stakes.

Roussel owns and trains Mambo Galliano, a 4-year-old Black Mambo gelding who won his first stakes race in his 16th career start. For Roussel, the Fair Grounds stakes win was his first since the 1999-2000 season.

Mambo Galliano had a tough-luck 2009-2010 Fair Grounds winter. He won an entry-level allowance, but then was disqualified from a second-level allowance victory and lost by a head to high-class Central City near the end of the meet. But that string of performances was reason enough for Roussel to point Mambo Galliano to the Thanksgiving, his first start since a third-level allowance win at Arlington on Aug. 6. Mambo Galliano shipped here Sunday and had a slight fever from the trip (common in horses), but was fine by midweek, and ran one of his best races on Thursday.

Favored Foreign Production set the early pace, tracked by Normandy Shore, Sok Sok, and Mambo Galliano through an opening quarter-mile in 21.95 seconds and a half in 45.22. Foreign Production was in front, but jockey Carlos Gonzalez said his horse never gave him a good feeling.

“He needs a tight track,” Gonzalez said. “This was cupping out from him in behind.”

As Foreign Production began struggling, Mambo Galliano and James Graham found a seam between horses, seizing command in mid-stretch.

“I got a lovely little split,” said Graham.

And that was that. Sweetsouthernmoon made a mild late run, but got nowhere near the winner. Cool Bullet finished an even third, followed by Foreign Production, Strikewhileitshot, Southern Style, Sok Sok, and Normandy Shore. The winner paid $11.20 and was timed in 1:09.56 for the six furlongs.

Roussel, a New Orleans native, was not in attendance Thursday – but a lot of other New Orleanians were. The Fair Grounds, back to its traditional Thanksgiving opening for the first time in three years, was packed, with long lines – too long, some would say – at betting windows and concession stands. Just how many people came here on a balmy fall afternoon, and just how much they bet, is a mystery. General admission is free, and Fair Grounds, per Churchill Downs Inc. policy, does not release handle figures.