11/04/2009 12:00AM

Rachel Alexandra to winter in New Orleans


NEW ORLEANS - Pop quiz: How many horses does Eclipse Award-winning trainer Steve Asmussen have for the 14 Breeders' Cup races this weekend at Santa Anita?

Answer: One. Jungle Tale in the Juvenile Fillies Turf.

Shall we shed a tear for Mr. Asmussen? We shall not. After winning 16 stakes races during the 2007-2008 Fair Grounds season, Asmussen won eight more at the 2008-2009 meet, and his Fair Grounds barn this winter will once again be brimming with high-class types.

One of them, you might have heard of: Rachel Alexandra.

Last Fair Grounds meet, the Asmussen barn was looking forward to taking a shot at Rachel Alexandra in the Fair Grounds Oaks with Silverbulletday winner War Echo, who got hurt and failed to make the local Oaks, won by Rachel Alexandra in a waltz. This time, it will be Asmussen, who took over Rachel's training in May, readying the filly for a 2010 campaign.

"She'll be down there by the first of December," Asmussen said Tuesday from Louisville.

Rachel Alexandra remained at Saratoga after completing a perfect 8-for-8 season with a narrow victory over older males in the Sept. 5 Woodward Stakes. She was shipped to Churchill Downs on Oct. 8, and currently is walking for morning exercise. Once Rachel Alexandra arrives at Fair Grounds, she'll resume regular training, Asmussen said.

Fair Grounds added two dirt-route stakes for fillies and mares this meet partly to fill a void in the division, but also to try and lure Rachel. She clearly will not be contesting the $100,000 Daily Racing Form Stakes on Dec. 19, but Fair Grounds general manager Eric Halstrom said the track will do everything it can to attract Rachel to a new stakes scheduled for March 13. The stakes, not yet named, is listed as offering a $200,000 purse, but Halstrom said that amount could be flexible if Rachel's connections consider the spot.

Asmussen also will have the leading 3-year-old filly of 2010 in Hot Dixie Chick, the Spinaway winner who is on a schedule similar to Rachel's, and also will return to training once arriving in New Orleans around Dec. 1.

Much farther along in his training is Friesan Fire, the 2009 Louisiana Derby winner who hasn't raced since finishing 10th in the Preakness Stakes, and has been transferred into the Asmussen barn owing to the retirement of trainer Larry Jones. Friesan Fire has worked three times at Fair Grounds, and has as his first major goal the Feb. 6 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream.

"We're planning on getting a race into him before the Donn," said Asmussen.

Fair Grounds has a two-turn dirt stakes, the Tenacious, on Dec. 20, but Asmussen said he would "go wherever we've got to go" to find a suitable spot for Friesan Fire.

New whips to be phased in at meet

Fair Grounds has instituted so-called "house rules" for the 2009-2010 meet regarding the use of riding crops. Following an industry-wide trend, Fair Grounds will begin mandating the use of new whips with a longer, more padded popper that contacts a horse when the whip is employed.

Fair Grounds jockeys will be required to use the new whips beginning on Feb. 1, 2010. On racing days before that date, the track will select two races per day in which riders are required to use the new whips. In other races before Feb. 1, jockeys can continue using traditional riding crops, which have a heavier, leather popper.

One-mile races eliminated

Fair Grounds no longer cards races at a one-mile distance, ending a longstanding race configuration that often caused annoyance among both local patrons and simulcast bettors.

One-mile races were contested around two turns and ended at the sixteenth pole, so that before the horses reached the Fair Grounds grandstand, the race had ended. The configuration also caused problems with camera angles, and on video, the races lacked visual flow for the last quarter-mile.

The Lecomte Stakes for males and the Tiffany Lass for females, the first 3-year-old stakes of the year at Fair Grounds, now will be contested at one mile and 40 yards instead of a mile.

* Fair Grounds will be broadcasting its simulcast signal in high-definition for the first time this year. Halstrom said the simulcast feed also will feature a new, improved graphics package.



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