10/13/2004 11:00PM

Schedule changes make way for 'marquee days'

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Churchill Downs Inc., which will close on a deal to acquire Fair Grounds Race Course either late Thursday or Friday, has announced a revamped stakes schedule for the upcoming season, one that will bring several new mega-stakes days to the track and position the Louisiana Derby as a more important Kentucky Derby prep race.

The most obvious change to an overhauled stakes schedule is the grouping of three major races March 12, Louisiana Derby Day. In addition to the derby, the program will include the Fair Grounds Oaks and the New Orleans Handicap, and those Grade 2 events are the three most important races Fair Grounds serves up during a four-month race meet. A fourth stakes, the Marie Krantz Memorial Handicap for female turf horses, also will be held on Louisiana Derby day.

The wholesale changes are in keeping with CDI's overall philosophy.

"As a company, we like to have marquee days," said Donnie Richardson, CDI's senior vice president of racing. "It makes sense from a racing standpoint and from a corporate standpoint."

The derby, which was run March 7 this year, has been moved one week on the 2005 calendar, taking the date left vacant when Gulfstream Park shifted the Florida Derby to April.

"Now people could run back in the Arkansas Derby," said Richardson. "It gives you eight weeks to the Kentucky Derby. That was an easy decision to make."

Richardson, who shaped the stakes schedule with new Fair Grounds general manager Randy Soth and Fair Grounds racing secretary Ben Huffman, said the retooling began close to a month ago. The schedule was given final approval by the Louisiana State Racing Commission on Thursday.

"There was a good program in place," Richardson said. "The same races are there. We just put them together on the same day."

Two other new marquee days were added to the schedule: Road to the Derby Kickoff Day on Jan. 15 and Louisiana Derby Preview Day on Feb. 12. Kickoff Day features the Colonel E. R. Bradley Handicap for turf horses, which got a purse boost to $100,000; the Leggio Handicap; the Tiffany Lass for 3-year-old fillies; and the Lecomte for 3-year-old males.

Preview Day also has four stakes: the Taylor's Special for male sprinters; the Mineshaft Handicap (formerly the Whirlaway); the Silverbullet-day, a prep for the Oaks; and the Risen Star, the Louisiana Derby prep.