After a long, litigious offseason, fans of the Fair Grounds can finally focus on racing.
With its 143rd thoroughbred meet opening Friday night with Starlight Racing, the track’s management looks forward to showing off the improvements on which they’ve spent millions of dollars in hopes of appeasing the state’s frustrated horse-racing community and lifting New Orleans racing back to past prominence.
“It is good to get the meet kicked off,” said Tim Bryant, president of the Fair Grounds. “The team has done a really good job of following through with what we said we were going to do.”
Additions to the track include two new video boards in the infield and paddock, a new drainage system for the pivotal turf track and renovated barns and stables on the backside. Marketing also has been increased substantially from last season to reach more people in the city and around Louisiana, and there will be more employees on the track serving concessions and cashing out tickets.
Churchill Downs Inc. caved and committed to these changes after questions about whether the Fair Grounds’ corporate parents’ interests lay in horses or slots turned from a yearslong grumble to threats of legislation as the last meet wrapped up. A bipartisan duo — Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, and Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marerro — was ready to pull the company’s license if it didn’t reshuffle its priorities.
Connick said he had to act because he saw a Louisiana and New Orleans “treasure” being let go. What he has heard about the refurbished track he helped make happen provides a new optimism that seems to be ubiquitous around the community.
“I’ve talked to a few of the owners, and they seem to be excited about the meet coming up,” Connick said. “It’s a wait-and-see right now, but, overall, things look positive.”
For a while, it seemed like nothing could go right. The same day Bryant got to present his first detailed breakdown of the improvements to the Louisiana Racing Commission and the public in August, he also had to explain a lawsuit brought by a group of quarter horsemen that was going to affect an already decreased purse pool by another $2.7 million, nearly doubling cuts.
Eventually, at an October meeting, the LRC determined the track had no legal standing to hold the funds and demanded the money be put back into the condition books.
Bryant acknowledged that this offseason has been different, a bit more strenuous, than those in the past.
“After the (last) live race meet, we did have to dig a little deeper,” Bryant said. “Everyone on the team did. But we’re hanging in there strong, and we’re very optimistic about this meet.”
Allowing for this confidence is the 2,500 stall applications that poured in for the 1,838 available spaces.
This is, Bryant said, about average, indicating no flagging demand despite the projected decrease in handle. About 1,400 are full in the lead-up to the meet, with the rest of the stalls to fill out, most likely, when Churchill Downs wraps up next weekend.
Thirty-five of the horses currently taking up space on the backside are trained by Al Stall, with 15 more to come to meet the cap. He claims to have been the first through the gates when the barns opened at 6 a.m. on Oct. 4.
He arrived to find “everything in great shape.” Repaired roofs and side panels on 480 of the stalls, with new skylights. Fresh coats of paint on 10 of the barns. Pleasant employees making for a positive vibe, maybe the most welcome change.
“It’s like a different world, almost,” Stall said. “What happened, happened. We’re just going forward. I hate to have such an adversarial-type relationship. You can’t be that way.
“Horsemen and management have to get together. We’re trying to work together now. It was just a little strained the last few years, let’s put it that way.”
The dirt track?
“The main track is awesome.” It’s always awesome, Stall said.
The grass track? Now, that question is a bit more complicated, and expensive.
“The turf course is … what’s that old show? ‘The $64,000 Question’?”
Talking about this season’s overhaul, every person interviewed inevitably came back to and made a point to emphasize the turf course. Over the past two years, almost half of the races on the turf course had to be moved to the dirt or simply canceled. Scott Jones, stakes coordinator at the Fair Grounds, said this “upsets the rhythm” of the condition book and discourages bettors.
Phil Hanrahan, CEO of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, recently visited the Fair Grounds, which he called “one of the key winter racing facilities in the country,” to check out the improvements. He saw the video boards, which seemed to him to have good resolution but, like everyone else, was most interested in the turf course.
“It’s important to keep the races on the turf, because it benefits the horsemen, it benefits the racetrack, and, most importantly, it benefits the fans and the handicappers,” Hanrahan said. “Bigger fields generally have larger handles. Bigger fields generally provide the handicapper with a more attractive race to wager on. That’s very important.
“Generally, what happens oftentimes when a race comes off the turf, the field size shrinks. It becomes less attractive from both a betting and fan proposition. Improvements like the video screens also enhance the fan experience, but we need to give fans the best experience we can give them.”
Hanrahan didn’t get to see how it holds up while he was here nor has anyone else in the community, because the city hasn’t gotten serious rain in weeks. The test could come in the opening weekend, however, with the forecast Saturday offering a 70 percent chance of thunderstorms from sunup to sundown.
“The work that we have done to the turf course, we feel, is going to be beneficial,” Bryant said. “We can’t control Mother Nature, but certainly I do think the course will drain better than it has in the past.”
What Fair Grounds executives could control is how many people saw and heard about the track. Mark Conner, director of marketing, spearheaded a beefed-up campaign costing 30 percent more than last year’s budget that included more print and TV ads farther out, to Baton Rouge and Lafayette. Local broadcaster WYES aired a documentary called “Fair Grounds Memories” on Wednesday, depicting a history organizers hope will continue with these improvements.
The allure of horse racing is hard to get across in the media, though, to people who aren’t familiar, Conner admits. That’s why they’re continually coming up with events like Starlight Racing, which features a Miller beer tent replete with a band, glow lights and dancers to appeal to a younger crowd.
“But most of what we try to do is bring people out for an experience to get them exposed a little,” Conner said, his voice ramping up to the emotion he hopes to incite with his ads. “Then they’re here. They’re part of the game. They start getting that feeling, then maybe try that $2 bet or whatever. Then they’ve got the adrenaline and it’s like, ‘Wow, this is pretty fun.’
“And you know what? It’s probably the least expensive type of entertainment around the city, dollar-for-dollar. For four or five hours of entertainment, it’s really a pretty good value.”
Bernard Chatters, president of the Louisiana chapter of the HBPA, sees a lot of untapped potential in the market. The patrons Conner targets with Starlight Racing? They already come to the Fair Grounds and they don’t even know it, Chatters said.
“Lots of people go to the Jazz Fest at the Fair Grounds, and a lot of them don’t make the connection,” Chatters said. “I think Churchill has a big opportunity because they have so many people in New Orleans that aren’t really aware that horse racing is right in the city, that it’s so accessible.”
Chatters represents those who asked Fair Grounds execs for these improvements, and they’ve finally responded. What was recently a tumultuous relationship seems to resemble now a more harmonious partnership.
“Hopefully they’ve learned something from this, that you are expected to be good stewards of your business, good stewards of racing and for racing, not just interested in bottom-line profits,” Chatters said. “Like anything, you have to reinvest in your business. Horsemen have to reinvest in horses all the time.
“Hopefully the legislators have gotten that across to them, and hopefully with the improvements they’ve done, we get larger field sizes, larger turnouts and more people betting on Fair Grounds races. That’s our ultimate goal.”