Horse power prevailed in the legislature Tuesday.
The state’s equine interests were able to use their strong political connections to get the owners of the Fair Grounds to make a commitment to address complaints about track conditions and other aspects of the operations.
The assurances by Churchill Downs Inc. prompted state Rep. Patrick Connick (R-Marrero) to drop his bill mandating that CDI dedicate 10 percent of its slots revenues towards upgrades at the Fair Grounds.
That would be approximately 31/2 times more than the estimated extra $1 million to be spent at the Fair Grounds over the next two years, according to the CDI proposal.
Connick’s bill already passed the House 94-0 and was being discussed by the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday.
Other bills that would increase the Louisiana Racing Commission’s ability to grant or deny a license renewal are pending.
“Going to the legislature was a last-ditch effort, just because we were unable to get the attention of Churchill Downs,” said Stanley Seelig, past president of the Louisiana Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, who represented the group in lobbying the state lawmakers. “And luckily for us, we got traction.”
Acting racing commission chairman Bob Wright said his group was pleased with the outcome, adding, “We’ve just to follow though with the details we’ve agreed upon. Churchill now understands that not just the commission itself but the legislative bodies in Louisiana are in total support of what we’ve tried to accomplish and that they’ve got to fulfill their obligations.”
Fair Grounds President Tim Bryant seemed to get the message.
“Churchill Downs is committed to doing these things,” he said in addressing the commerce committee. “Obviously if we don’t follow through with these commitments, we’re going to be back here, and it’s going to be a lot worse.”
Tuesday’s resolution followed a week of discussions among the parties after the same committee had told Bryant they wanted more solid assurances than the ones he had given the racing commission before it granted CDI a conditional renewal of its 10-year rolling license.
On Tuesday, there was little of the contentiousness that had marked previous meetings involving CDI.
“This has been a great team effort to get this thing in position to where I can withdraw my bill,” Connick said.
Critics had said CDI was more concerned with the more lucrative slots and video poker parts of its Louisiana operations, which includes 11 off-track betting parlors, than with the quality of the racetrack facilities and customer amenities.
The biggest change from previous proposals was that CDI will spend the entire $690,000 it will take to replace the drainage system for the troubled turf track, which has seen 45 percent of its scheduled races in the past two seasons either canceled outright or moved to the dirt track. Previously, the company said it would do only piecemeal work, relying on the recommendations of its consultants.
Seelig said his group’s research showed that at least $8 million in handle had been lost due to the turf course’s problems, a major contributor to the track’s 12 percent decline in handle this year.
That led to about $1 million in stakes races either being canceled or run with reduced purses and a 10 percent cut in purses for non-stakes and allowance races in the season’s final month.
“The turf course is vitally important to our operation,” Bryant said. “It’s always been our intention to have a turf course that recovers quickly from rain and, with these additional resources, we hope it improves that likelihood.”
Other commitments were made to improving the repair process for the barn area, more marketing of racing as opposed to slots, replacing the video boards in both the infield and paddock areas and having more live tellers during busy racing periods.
And in a less-expensive area, Bryant said the track would bring back a live bugler on weekends, utilizing “creative and inventive ways” to pick them.
In return, Bryant said he hoped the LHBPA would assist in persuading many of the out-of-state owners and trainers who had expressed displeasure with the track conditions to return to the Fair Grounds this fall.
Seelig said he felt that was still the responsibility of CDI but that the improvements along with the appeal of wintering in New Orleans should make the Fair Grounds an attractive option.
“If the backside is nice and the turf course is reliable, people are going to come,” he said. “But it may take a year or so for those people to have the confidence the fixes they’ve promised are actually going to work.”
Down the road, Bryant said CDI would be interested in discussing cutting racing days and increasing the track’s takeout on bets, something that takes the legislature’s approval, and having 24 hours of slots operations instead of closing at midnight. That would fall under the city’s authority.
Cutting days and increasing the takeout would be strongly opposed by the horsemen. Connick said he would prefer those issues to be resolved among CDI, the horsemen and the commission.
“But if that fails and we have to step in and get involved, we’ll get involved again,” he said. “Right now, Churchill Downs has come to the table and seen the light. Hopefully we’ll do great things with that track.”