Mar 22, 2020 1:16 PM

Wells Bayou wins eerie Louisiana Derby at empty track

Posted Mar 22, 2020 1:16 PM

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — As Wells Bayou completed a wire-to-wire victory in the $1 million Louisiana Derby, there was hardly a cheer to be heard — other than the isolated triumphant shouts of trainer Brad Cox and his stable crew.

In the 107th running of the qualifying points race for the Kentucky Derby, the clubhouse and grandstand at Fair Grounds Race Course were empty and eerily quiet because of crowd restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. There was no crowd noise to rival the echoing voice of track announcer John G. Dooley — just the sound of 56 hooves clopping down the stretch.

Winning jockey Florent Geroux had noted the bizarre scene during earlier races on what is normally the busiest day of the year at the Fair Grounds, drawing crowds approaching 10,000.

“It’s funny because it’s the biggest day of the meet here and its completely empty,” Geroux said. “It’s like playing football in the Super Bowl with an empty stadium.”

Kind of like New Orleans without open bars or live music clubs, which has been the case since early last week.

On Saturday, the Louisiana Derby was one of the few U.S. sporting events to continue as scheduled, one day after New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell had issued a “stay home” mandate to residents in an effort to curb the spread of the virus. Shortly after the race, officials announced that the rest of the meet, which was scheduled to run until March 29, was canceled.

For the overwhelming majority of race fans and bettors, the only option was to bet online and watch on television.

Some die-hards just couldn’t be kept away, though. A couple dozen people parked along a chain-link fence with a view of the front stretch, watching tailgate-style, with drinks in hand. Some stood in the beds of pickup trucks for a better view while others peered through the fence.

“I’ve only been coming to this for about 50 years,” said 65-year-old Ken Carson, who lives near the track. “I’ve never really bet online but this is the first time I ever opened up an account for at least one day to come out and enjoy the spectacle and, you know, make a little bet here or there.

“It’s a pleasant day,” Carson added, a can of beer in one hand and his racing form in the other. “We’re just enjoying ourselves out here.”

Carson said the horse he liked was Ny Traffic, who went off at 26-1 but finished second, staying close to the leader throughout. Modernist finished third while morning-line favorite Enforceable, who went off at 7-2, finished fifth.

Wells Bayou earned 100 points toward qualification for the Kentucky Derby, which has been delayed until early September from its usual running on the first Saturday in May.

“He’s very great leaving the gate. He broke super sharp,” Geroux said. “After that, when he makes the lead, he relaxes very nice. I let him take a few breathers around the turns. He did perfectly. And when the competition came next to him down the lane, he has another gear.”

Wells Bayou finished the new 1 3/8-mile race distance in 1:56.47. He paid $8.40, $5.80 and $4.60.

“The first Saturday in September is a long ways away,” Geroux said, referring to the tentative new date for the Kentucky Derby. “Many things can happen. We’re just hoping the horse comes back healthy and we’re going to adjust and go from there.”

Owned by Clint and Lance Gassaway, Madaket Stables and Wonder Stables, Wells Bayou took his third victory in five lifetime starts, bringing his career winnings to $845,293.

The Saffie Joseph Jr.-trained Ny Traffic, with Joe Bravo aboard, earned 40 points and paid $21.60 and $12.60 after breaking from the starting gate as a 26-1 long shot.

“The last couple races he really stepped up to the plate and the horse is just getting good,” said Bravo, a race-day fill-in for jockey Luis Saez, who decided not to travel to New Orleans. “The thing that makes him so good is that he listens. He broke great, put him in front, he relaxed off the other horse. He turned for home and my horse did not want to lay up. He ran for me down the lane and that’s all you can ask for.”

Modernist paid $9.60.

Continue Reading Hutch Post
Mar 22, 2020 1:16 PM
Race drivers use games to stay sharp as virus shuts tracks

DÜSSELDORF, Germany (AP) — Le Mans winner Neel Jani won’t feel his tires grip the road in a competitive environment for quite some time with the Formula E season suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

That doesn’t mean he can’t find a race worth his time. To do that, he’s been taking his auto racing skills online — and finding himself at times overmatched.

“Against the gamers, it’s a different world,” he said. “They’re incredibly quicker than all of us, all of the real racing drivers.”

Pros from Formula One, NASCAR and other leading series are using race simulators to stay sharp and entertain fans with their seasons postponed by the outbreak.

Since the season-opening Australian Grand Prix was called off last weekend, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen has been racing online, as has McLaren’s Lando Norris. F1, NASCAR and INDYCAR have had drivers sign up to take part in virtual races in place of real ones, and sports networks with time slots to fill are saying they’ll air them.

“It’s good just to keep you in the groove from a mental, psychological aspect,” Jani, who raced against Verstappen on Sunday, told The Associated Press.

Jani was using a borrowed simulator at a friend’s house and has ordered his own simulator, but doesn’t know when it will arrive amid restrictions in Switzerland due to the virus.

Jani says it’s good for training “pure racecraft,” particularly overtaking, although there’s nothing like wrestling a real race car around a track.

“Being quick in a real car and being quick in a sim, there are still different aspects coming into play. In the real cars, first of all, you need the physical condition to be able to do it, so you need to have physically to train and all these things,” he said.

“With all the speed and all the G-forces, you have to still be able to have the guts to do it, to take this corner flat because you know if you don’t make it, you’re going to hit and it’s going to hurt. While in the sim, you say: ‘This lap I try, and if it doesn’t work, next lap I try differently.’”

Sim racing allows fans to watch drivers who wouldn’t normally race each other. So far, Verstappen has taken on gamers, but also Indy 500 winners Juan Pablo Montoya and Simon Pagenaud.

Drivers aren’t the only athletes using technology to stop their skills from decaying while in self-isolation.

The 2018 Tour de France-winning rider Geraint Thomas is one of a number of cyclists moving online to give indoor workouts more purpose. He’s been using the Zwift platform to turn a ride on an exercise bike into a group race through computer-generated scenery in the fictional nation of Watopia.

Some PGA Tour players already have simulators in their homes and can use them as part of normal practice to check the launch angle, ball speed and other measurements relevant to the swing. Full Swing Golf is one of the largest companies and supplies Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Gary Woodland. Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler even spent time this week by using a simulator to compare left-handed swings.

But perhaps no sport is better positioned to turn simulations into a fan-friendly experience than auto racing.

Two postponed races will be held virtually on Sunday — F1s Bahrain Grand Prix and NASCAR’s event at Homestead-Miami Speedway. INDYCAR will launch its own series the following weekend.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and more than 30 other NASCAR pros have signed on to race in the multi-week eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series that begins Sunday on the virtual Miami track. That race will be broadcast live on FS1, with NASCAR commentators Jeff Gordon, Mike Joy and Larry McReynolds on the call.

“We’re basically the only sport in the world where your competitors are going to go out there and put on a show for the fans,” said NASCAR Cup Series driver Clint Bowyer, who will compete and provide in-race commentary.

The 40-year-old Bowyer told The Associated Press he’s been on the iRacing game with other drivers constantly since the pandemic forced him to hunker down at home. He said a group including him, Earnhardt, country musician Tim Dugger and other pros have run virtual races until 2:30 a.m. some nights.

“It felt like I was in the garage area,” Bowyer said. “Everybody that I work with on any given weekend was all sitting there in this thing.”

It’s not clear how much Sunday’s race will help drivers stay sharp, but it’s undoubtedly keeping them competitive. Bowyer said some have gone to extremes to perfect their race stations and are even studying in-game data to maximize performance.

Bowyer expects the 45-year-old Earnhardt will surprise fans with how adept he is, but probably one of the younger pros will take the checkered flag.

“Nobody can leave their houses, there ain’t nothing to do,” Bowyer said. “Some of them don’t have wives and kids. Those are the ones who are going to win. Look for that guy.”