Fair Grounds aims to buck trend in slumping economy

NEW ORLEANS -- At a moment in time when the buzzword at many racetracks is "survive," Fair Grounds wants to work under a different premise when its 87-day race meet begins Friday: Thrive.

Purses here have been on the rise the last several seasons, and with the addition of slot machines to the Fair Grounds business arsenal, they'll go up again this year. Owners and trainers have taken note: Continuing a trend from last year, Fair Grounds boasts a ramped-up collection of horsemen on the backstretch. And while the effect of Hurricane Katrina still lingers in New Orleans, Katrina keeps receding farther into the past.

So, while the national economy slumps, and major tracks like Churchill Downs and Hollywood Park recently have slashed purses, Fair Grounds officials don't try hard to temper optimism.

"We're positioned as well as anyone to weather the financial crisis and improve the horse business," the president of Fair Grounds, Austin Miller, said this week.

The horse business is a new arena for Miller. A casino-industry man, Miller became president of what now is called Fair Grounds Racecourse and Slots after coming to Fair Grounds last year to head up the slot-machine program, which began in the old offtrack betting building, but moved this week into a glitzy new parlor, entrances to which opening-day racing patrons will pass on their way to the grandstand and clubhouse.

"There are some intricacies in racing, but it comes down to running a good business, putting out a good product," Miller said. "I'm supported by a cast of characters who know the intricacies."

Two of those people also are newcomers. Eric Halstrom arrived in New Orleans just last week from Minnesota after being named vice president of racing. Jason Boulet is the new racing secretary, but Boulet has roots at Fair Grounds, where he worked several years, and across Louisiana, since he also served as racing secretary at Evangeline Downs.

Churchill Downs Inc., the owner of Fair Grounds, "is committed to being the best winter racing spot," Boulet said, articulating a positioned also expressed by Miller, and Boulet has tools to move the track forward. Right now, there are about 1,400 horses from which to draw entries on the Fair Grounds backstretch, which, at capacity, houses 1,839. There are about 2,000 more animals a couple of hours away at the Evangeline Downs training center, and more at other training facilities in the area. Fair Grounds had 8.9 starters per race last season during a meet plagued by rain.

"At least 9.5 is our goal this year," said Boulet. Boulet has leverage in the form of purses that will average $375,000 per day including stakes, and $300,000 per day in overnight purses alone, up some 20 percent from last season.

Fair Grounds has stuck with its established multi-stakes-day setup: Louisiana Derby Preview Day is Feb. 7, and Louisiana Derby Day - which also includes the Fair Ground Oaks, New Orleans Handicap, and Mervin Muniz Handicap - is scheduled for March 14. But while Fair Grounds has kept intact its graded stakes schedule, it has pared about $1.8 million off the stakes program to put the money into overnight purses.

"The stakes schedule does not bring horsemen to the track," said Sean Alfortish, president of the the Louisiana Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, who pushed for the monetary shift. "It's the day-to-day purses."

Purses could go up if the new slots parlor exceeds expectations. And Fair Grounds handle could actually rise this year since its races will be available on most account-wagering platforms in the United States. On Wednesday, the state horsemen's association, Churchill Downs Inc., and account-wagering services formalized agreements on contracts that will place the Fair Grounds signal on Twinspires, Xpressbet and Youbet. An agreement has not yet been reached with TVG.

Alfortish said the fees paid by account-wagering providers that would be split between Fair Grounds and local horsemen "are fair," and in accord with fees being proposed by the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Group, an entity trying to negotiate higher account-wagering fees in various states.

Rising purses have helped Fair Grounds recruit several new outfits. Mid-Atlantic-based Steve Klesaris has 30 stalls, and California trainer Doug O'Neill is branching out with an 18-stall presence. Other new arrivals are Wally Dollase (18 stalls), Greg Foley (20 stalls), Steve Margolis (30 stalls), and Dale Romans (20 stalls). All will be chasing Steve Asmussen, Tom Amoss, and Cody Autrey in the trainer standings. Leading rider Jamie Theriot is back for another meet, as is Fair Grounds standout Robby Albarado, as well as Shaun Bridgmohan, who rides extensively for Asmussen.

Asmussen has a horse for the opening-day feature, New Edition, who was one of 14 entered in the $60,000 Blushing K.D., a filly and mare route race carded for turf but in danger of being moved to the main track because of rain. On grass, the Bill Mott-trained Stormy West looks like the favorite. Stormy West could not approach the top horses in the Grade 1 First Lady Stakes at Keeneland on Oct. 3, but this stakes should be well within her class arc, though Stormy West has just one win at this 1 1/16-mile distance.

"She's probably best at a mile, but she could be effective at this trip," Mott said.

A contender on turf, Final Refrain becomes the horse to beat on dirt. Trained by Al Stall, Final Refrain has made three starts on wet tracks, winning once and twice finishing second.