Handle down at Fair Grounds

Average daily handle on Fair Grounds races fell nearly 20 percent from the previous racing season during the track's 2009-2010 race meet, which ended Sunday. But the rate of decline slowed considerably in March, and the New Orleans racetrack hopes changes to its racing schedule in 2010-2011 will at least bring business back in line with 2008-2009 levels.

The average daily handle from all sources was $3,107,623 this season, compared with $3,858,209 in 2998-2009, a drop of 19.5 percent, according to figures provided by the Louisiana State Racing Commission. Total average daily handle during 17 race days this March was $3,655,016, compared with $4,022,520 for 16 days in 2009, a drop of 9 percent. More dramatic handle declines occurred early in the meet.

Fair Grounds, owned by Churchill Downs Inc., raced 85 days in 2009-10 and 86 in 2008-09.

"I think our plan to really finish the season strong played out," said Fair Grounds' vice president and general manager, Eric Halstrom. "We knew we were going to end stronger than it started."

Fair Grounds, which boosts its racing purses with revenue from a slot-machine parlor, had to cut purses during the meet. Stakes purses were trimmed, with prize money for two Grade 2's, the Mervin Muniz and the New Orleans Handicap, cut from $500,000 to $300,000.

Fair Grounds tried starting their meet earlier in November the last two seasons, apparently to deleterious effect. In 2008, racing began on Nov. 14, and in 2009, the opener was pushed back to Nov. 6. Halstrom said that pending approval by the state racing commission, Fair Grounds would revert to its traditional Thanksgiving Day opener later this year.

Halstrom also said that after having to cut purses this season, Fair Grounds would begin the next season at "a more conservative level." Despite cuts, Fair Grounds still paid out more than $300,000 per day in purses this season.

A three-card night-racing experiment this season proved successful, and Halstrom said to expect further development in that area.

The track maintenance supervisor Ian Gamble will not return next meet, Halstrom said, and Fair Grounds is conducting a search for his replacement.

Steve Asmussen won yet another training title, while Shaun Bridgmohan earned his first riding crown at Fair Grounds. Zardana, who knocked off Rachel Alexandra in the New Orleans Ladies last month, was named Horse of the Meet.