So now that we have conditional peace between the Fair Grounds and the Louisiana Racing Commission, maybe everybody should gather around and sing Kumbaya.
Or, considering that it’s Derby Week, My Old Kentucky Home.
Or, better yet, You Are My Sunshine, which, come to think of it, would be appropriate to play before the Louisiana Derby.
Only there’s no live bugler, one of the cuts Churchill Downs Inc. has made in its decade owning the venerable Gentilly facility.
Plus, the folks on the Louisiana side of the equation didn’t exactly come out of Tuesday’s commission meeting at which CDI’s rolling 10-year license was renewed upon promises of improvements to the turf course and backstretch along with increased attention to customer service and marketing in a harmonious mood.
Much of Fair Grounds President Tim Bryant’s presentation was peppered “ifs” and “maybes.”
And the extra money Bryant was pledging over the next two years — $1 million — is a relative pittance.
How much? It’s less than half of what the track will realize from concessions during Jazz Fest alone.
And it’s less than a third of the estimated $3.2 million the bill by Rep. Patrick Connick (R-Marrero) would generate by mandating 10 percent of CDI’s slots revenues go toward improvements at the track.
Even the $200,000 video screen to replace the one that has been broken for the past two years, which has become a symbol of CDI’s negligence, is 1/30th the price of the $12 million one in Louisville which CDI proudly unveiled at last weekend’s opening of the spring season at Churchill Downs.
And what was extracted from CDI came grudgingly.
At last week’s commission meeting, which resulted in the license renewal being deferred until Tuesday’s special meeting, CDI senior vice-president of gaming and former Fair Grounds President Austin Miller pointed out that the cost of replacing the broken board wasn’t worth it compared to the number who actually watch from the apron area.
Maybe from CDI’s bottom-line point of view, Miller was correct. But it was definitely the wrong thing to say at the wrong time.
“I hate that it’s come to this,” commission chairman Jerry Meaux said at the time. “But personally, without it, I don’t think anything would have been done.
“I really think a lot of trust has been taken away from us.”
Sadly, two days after the meeting, Meaux was killed in a midafternoon two-vehicle crash in which the other driver has been charged with DUI and vehicular manslaughter.
But Bob Wright, now the acting commission chairman, was sounding a similar tone Tuesday.
“I think (CDI) has to recognize that unless they get more emphasis on racing that it could get hard on continuing their gaming operations,” Wright said. “And I think they’re going to be convinced of that, if not now, pretty soon.”
Wright was referring to a bill filed Tuesday by state senator Page Cortez (R-Lafayette) which would give the commission the authority to deny the license for any of the state’s four racetracks on an annual basis.
The current 10-year rolling renewal makes that pretty much impossible.
Connick’s bill, which passed the House 94-0, heads into Senate hearings next week, but Connick has said he would pull it if Cortez’ bill, which certainly gives more power to the commission, were to pass. There are also questions about the constitutionality of Connick’s bill.
Rest assured, CDI’s attorneys are aware of that.
And while CDI may have a Donald Sterling-like approval rating in Louisiana, its management is not foolish enough to allow what for it is a lucrative gaming operation in the state to be taken away, at least without a fight.
Already Fair Grounds officials have expressed the desire to cut the number of racing days, not just at their track, but statewide.
It’s a trend that has produced good results in other parts of the country, but is sure to draw strong opposition from the politically connected Louisiana horse industry, not a promising sign since the Legislature sets the number of dates.
CDI also recently raised its take form pari-mutuel betting at Churchill Downs. Doing so in Louisiana also would legislative approval.
However, the commission, which does have the power to approve the dates, might be open to helping forge a compromise on those issues.
“It’s not something we want to make a premature judgment on,” Wright said. “We want to do what is best for the industry.
“If we could we could study that without going through the legislative process, it’s certainly something the commission could operate with.”
Wright, a Lafayette attorney who is the former president of the both the Louisiana State Bar and the Louisiana Trial Lawyers Association, said Wednesday he would be interested in succeeding his good friend Meaux as chairman.
That appointment will be made by Gov. Bobby Jindal, but there is no timetable for that to happen.
Make no mistake, though.
The commission has shown its willingness to hold CDI’s feet to the fire.
And we don’t mean the campfire.