You won’t find many Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races older than the Louisiana Derby (G2) at Fair Grounds. The historic race dates back to 1894, which makes the Louisiana Derby almost as old as the Kentucky Derby itself.
The conditions of the Louisiana Derby have varied widely through the years. It’s been held over four different distances, most recently shifting to 1 3⁄16 miles in 2020. The purse has risen from a few thousand dollars all the way up $1 million beginning in 2011. And along the way, the race has been won by some unforgettable horses.
The first Louisiana Derby winner of note was Black Gold, who followed his success at Fair Grounds with a tenacious half-length score in the “Run for the Roses.” The Louisiana Derby subsequently underwent an extended drought, failing to produce another Derby winner until Grindstone replicated Black Gold’s elusive double in 1996.
But even during this lull period, the Louisiana Derby was slowly gaining in prominence and prestige. Master Derby parlayed a victory at Fair Grounds into glory in the 1975 Preakness (G1). No Le Hace (1972), Golden Act (1979), Woodchopper (1981), and Risen Star (1988) all placed in the Kentucky Derby after winning the Louisiana Derby, and Risen Star later dominated the Preakness and Belmont Stakes (G1) to secure champion 3-year-old male honors.
Upgraded from Grade 3 to Grade 2 status in 1999, the Louisiana Derby has continued to produce a steady stream of high-profile horses. Fan favorite Funny Cide used a beaten effort in the Louisiana Derby as a springboard to victory in the 2003 Kentucky Derby, a path replicated by Country House in 2019.
Indeed, as a lucrative Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race offering qualification points to the top five finishers on a 100-40-30-20-10 basis, the Louisiana Derby has cemented its position as a key steppingstone toward the first Saturday in May. During the 2010s, the Louisiana Derby churned out 29 Kentucky Derby starters (averaging nearly three per year), including 2013 Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice, 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner and 2019 Preakness winner War of Will.
Certainties are few and far between in horse racing, but with its rich purse and hefty offering of qualification points, it seems safe to assume the Louisiana Derby’s influence on the Kentucky Derby will only continue to grow.
By J. Keeler Johnson