• Thoroughbred racing, the “sport of kings,” dates back to 1665 in the United States.
• Louisiana Downs opened in 1974, the same year as the 100th running of the Kentucky Derby.
• Louisiana Downs began as Sawyer Downs, a track envisioned in the mid-1960s by Earl Sawyer, who approached local oilman and sports enthusiast John Wolcott to join the project.
• Governor John McKeithen vowed to stop it; under Governor Edwin Edwards it was approved.
• In 1973, Wolcott, president of Sawyer Downs, Inc., was instrumental in moving the track site from Benton Road to its current location, in renaming the new track Louisiana Downs (the only track named after a state), and in building the first track in the nation with enclosed air-conditioned grandstand seating.
• Wolcott brought in investor and friend Kemmons Wilson, founder and president of Holiday Inns of America, as chief financial officer. Wilson brought in shopping mall mogul Edward DeBartolo, Sr.
• DeBartolo—it is speculated—convinced Wilson to sell his shares and then, holding the majority, forced the sale of John Wolcott’s, leaving him as sole owner.
• Shortly after it was completed, DeBartolo, Sr. purchased the track and, soon after, purchased the San Francisco 49ers for his son, Edward J. DeBartolo, Jr., in 1977. The track set national records for handle (total amount bet on a race, program, meeting, or year) and attendance during the 1970’s and 80’s. The track was bought by Caesars Entertainment in 2002 and the property is now known officially as Harrah’s Louisiana Downs. The casino adjacent to the track is slots-only, with no tables. Some of the slot revenue contributes to the prize money (purse) to jockeys and owners.
The Super Derby
• The winner of the first Super Derby in 1980 was Temperance Hill, the same horse that won the Belmont Stakes that year. The Super Derby has attracted:
- 4 Kentucky Derby winners
- 4 Preakness Stakes winners
- 5 Belmont Stakes winners
- 7 Travers Stakes winners
*according to the track website
• The Super Derby remains the biggest race day at Louisiana Downs & is currently undergoing a transformation. In 2017, the race was held on turf, instead of dirt, for the first time, allowing for a wider field of horses to participate. The race was 11/16 miles, and the purse was $200,000. More exciting changes for the Super Derby are expected to be announced this year.
• Today’s voice of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Travis Stone, began his race-calling career at Harrah’s Louisiana Downs in 2006 and stayed until 2013. He recalls “tremendous pressure to nail that race call” at the Super Derby—the key race that everybody watched—helping establish his career.
• The track’s director of advertising and promotions in its first year was Larry King, before he became the nationally known award-winning talk show host.
• Mickey Mantle was known to frequent Louisiana Downs following his retirement from baseball. He is quoted in Bartimo’s book as saying privately: “I miss the crowds, the fans, the excitement. I know I drink too much but it helps me get through the day. I love being here. Every time a horse crosses the finish line they cheer like I just hit a homerun at Yankee Stadium.”
• Back in 1974, exercise rider Jamie Sisson was the first one to lay hoof prints on the track at Louisiana Downs. Today, he and wife Laura own a supply tack shop and split their time between Louisiana Downs and the track in New Orleans.
• Thoroughbred race horses will face retirement and require more medical treatments as they age. Some owners will sell the horse for a small fee or even give the horse away to a trusted facility to prevent the horse from being sold to buyers who inhumanely transport them for slaughter across the U.S. borders.
• Some farms will rehome and retrain Thoroughbreds for a second career to ensure their safety. “They are athletes and they want to be active. There’s a good chance they will be competitive in whatever they are retrained to do,” says Sig North, an owner of Double Rainbow Equestrian Center in Haughton. Retrained off the track Thoroughbreds (OTTB) compete in hunting, jumping, eventing, or teach riding lessons.
• Thoroughbred race horse names are claimed, approved and registered with The Jockey Club. As show horses, they are given new names. Retired winning stakes horse Ed’s Pet became Hearts & Diamonds, named by the children at North’s barn who saw shapes in his markings. North’s brother Frank once rode him to a first-place victory in a baton relay at the Special Olympics!
Off To The Races
Additional content made July 11, 2018