(Fair Grounds starting gate / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

From the Fair Grounds Media Team:

On a backstretch with Eclipse Award winners, Hall of Famers, and countess local legends, Shane Wilson and Joey Foster are more than holding their own. Buoyed by deep shedrows that are having success at several different levels, both Wilson and Foster are in line for their most successful local meet to date as the 2020-21 Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots season ticks past the halfway point.

Wilson, a native of Haughton, La., has been working at the race track since he was a teenager and learned his trade under Hall of Famer Jack Van Berg, as well as highly successful veterans Bobby Barnett and Sam David. He went out his own in 1998, won his first race that October at Sam Houston when Fullasatick won the Jiffy Lube Stakes, and also has been a mainstay on the Louisiana circuit ever since. Wherever he’s gone, Wilson has never forgotten the one piece of advice that stands out above all the rest.

“I was lucky to learn from a lot of those guys coming up but the thing I really remember, more than anything, is the care of the horses,” Wilson said. “The horse comes first. Everybody that I worked for always said that if they need the time, you stop and give them the time. They can come back later and reward you.”

Wilson isn’t new to the Fair Grounds backstretch, as he was prominent here in the early 2000s, winning nine races in 2001-02. Shortly after he shifted his winter base primarily to Delta Downs, while only occasionally shipping in locally. Wilson made small inroads last year, winning two races from 19 starters, but got the full allotment of 44 stalls this year, and has been a daily presence at the entry box from Opening Day.

“We had been going to Delta and I have a lot of clients that like to claim and we decided to come here this year because there is a better quality of horses,” Wilson said. “We’ve been active in the claiming ranks. We knew we had some horses that didn’t fit, so we wanted to upgrade, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Wilson made national headlines in 2019 when Mocito Rojo, a horse he claimed for $10,000 for owner Wayne T. Davis out of a debut win at Delta in 2016, won the Steve Sexton Mile (G3) at Lone Star Park and Lukas Classic (G3) at Churchill Downs. The veteran has since won 17 races and over $800,000 for his new connections, who could be on to another big score with Rightandjust, a horse they claimed for $50,000 out of a local maiden-claimer in December. The 3-year-old son of Awesome Again won a salty optional-claimer in convincing fashion for his new connections here January 16 and looms an upset candidate in the February 13 Risen Star (G2), the last prep for the March 20 TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2).

Both Mocito Rojo and Rightandjust fit the profile that Wilson looks for in a young horse at the claiming box.

“With both horses, we were looking for a young horse with a pedigree to stretch out and run long,” Wilson said. “With Rightandjust, we were hoping he was a young horse who could mature and turn into something like Mocito Rojo did. He’s still progressing and moving forward and we’re looking forward to the Risen Star.”

Horses like Mocito Rojo and Rightandjust have given Wilson a chance to run against some of the best horses and trainers in the sport. With conditioners like Brad Cox, Steve Asmussen, and Tom Amoss, among others, on the backstretch, finding wins in the bigger races isn’t easy. Wilson looks forward to the challenge and knows it’s a big feather in his cap to be able to run and compete in spots like the Risen Star.

“It feels good for the barn and the clients to feel like we belong against the best here,” Wilson said. “They want to feel like we can run against those barns. You know where you fit and where you don’t. And whenever we do have one that we feel can compete in the bigger races, it’s fun to go against them.”

Wilson started the meet on a winning note—literally—as he teamed with jockey Jack Gilligan to win the opener on the November 26 card, the first of five races the duo won together locally before the end of the year. Gilligan went down with a broken collarbone January 10 and, without his go-to rider, Wilson has struggled to find the winner’s circle. The barn has gone just 1-for-21 since Gilligan has been on the mend, with Rightandjust as the only winner. Needless to say, Wilson is looking forward to Gilligan’s return next month.

“It hurt me when I lost Jack,” Wilson said. “He got down here and started working horses for us and that had a lot to do with our fast start. He breezed a lot of those horses and he knew them. He’s a super good rider and he’ll listen. I lost him at the start of this month and we’ve had seconds and thirds and a lot of it is guys getting on horses that they had never been on before.”

Gilligan has felt at home riding for Wilson, as the pair have struck a winning partnership. Be it a $5,000 state-bred claimer, or an improving 3-year-old pointing to a grade 2 Kentucky Derby prep, Gilligan has been impressed with Wilson’s ability to have a blinkers-on approach to each horse.

“He’s able to cater to each horse individually and get every last ounce he can out of each one,” Gilligan said. “That’s hard to do with over 40 horses. He doesn’t always have the most talented horses but he’s done a great job with what he has, getting the best out of them. As a trainer, he’s always has the horses feeling great, looking great, and he listens to feedback, which I think is one of my best traits as a rider.”

Foster, an Arkansas native, beat Wilson to the winner’s circle by six years, when Striker J. won a $5,000 claimer at Louisiana Downs in May 1992. He won his first at Fair Grounds in December 1993, when Tudors Intent won a $15,000 claimer, one of three winners the barn had during the meet. He peaked with 10 wins during the 1998-99 meet then predominantly raced at Delta Downs, Oaklawn Park, and Louisiana Downs for the next 15 years while only sparingly shipping in to Fair Grounds.

Foster returned on a more regular basis during the 2015-16 meet and set a personal Fair Grounds best last year, when he went 14-for-96, with stable earnings of $366,510. This year things have really clicked, as he’s 12-for-99 through January 30, with earnings of $416,740. He gradually built up his stock where he could come to New Orleans and compete on a regular basis, as opposed to shipping in periodically, and the results speak for themselves.

“We’re very blessed to be where we’re at so far,” Foster said. “We didn’t have a number in mind, but we’re very excited to be at 12 wins about halfway through the meet.”

Foster’s stable peaked across the board in 2017, setting personal highs with 559 starters, 101 wins, and earnings of $1,544,160. The majority of the heavy lifting that year was done at Delta and Louisiana Downs, where he’s won several training titles. This year, with Foster focusing solely on Fair Grounds, it’s no wonder he’s well on his way to easily surpassing last year’s local success.

“It’s really all about the numbers and the quality of horses,” Foster said. “Before I had 40 horses at Delta but now I’ve got them here and I’m running more and I’m winning more, in some better races as well.”

While Wilson and Gilligan have morphed into a formidable duo, Foster and jockey Mitchell Murrill have been especially potent. The pair have teamed to win 20% from over 100 mounts the past two seasons, with a bettor-friendly and healthy ROI of $2.14. Murrill credits Foster’s ability to read the condition book and give his horses the best chances for success.

“Joey always seems to find the best spot for his horses, which makes it a little easier for me to do my job,” Murrill said. “We communicate with each other well and he trusts my judgement when I’m on the track and it just seems to be a great combo.”

Fair Grounds racing secretary Scott Jones has welcomed the resurgence of both Wilson and Foster, and their commitment to the local product on a day-in, day-out basis.

“They have a good mix of open and state-bred horses at all levels between them and have helped tremendously in all races,” Jones said. They’ve had almost 170 starts between them through the first half of the meet. I’m happy that they are both having good meets as they’ve invested a lot in us this year and we really appreciate them being here.”

Wilson echoed those sentiments.

“I think Scott does a really good job of writing races for everybody and the program here has really fit us well do far,” Wilson said. “The Louisiana breds and the turf course fits our barn and we’ve had a really good go of it. This is where we want to be.”