OPELOUSAS — When Evangeline Downs general manager Bret Cox sat with his staff to prepare for the track’s 50th racing season, he wanted to accomplish three things.
With opening night one week away, those three — refurbishment of the track itself, an upgrade in the racing staff to improve operations, and an attractive racing schedule — have been accomplished.
“This place is a source of pride for a lot of people,” Cox said Tuesday at a gathering to kick off the thoroughbred racing season. “There’s a rich history of racing in Acadiana and at Evangeline Downs, and we’re here to take that and run with it. We’re looking to build on that and make it better.”
The track’s golden anniversary season starts next Wednesday, April 8, with 84 racing days running through Aug. 29, when the Evangeline Downs Star stakes race closes the season. Between now and then, a total of 20 stakes races will be staged over the regular and turf courses, highlighted by the return of the $300,000 Evangeline Downs Turf Sprint on May 30.
The meet’s other highlights include the July 4 Louisiana Legends night, which includes eight different stakes races, and the venerable D. S. “Shine” Young one week later July 11. The Legends night includes seven races with $100,000 purses, including a $125,000 purse for the Legends Classic for 3-year-olds and up.
“We’re going to have our own fireworks here that night,” said Michael Chamberlain, who joins the Evangeline Downs staff as track announcer this season after calling races at Sam Houston Race Park and Turf Paradise. “That’s $700,000 in purses on that one night, so that’s a big night for racing fans here in Acadiana.”
The Turf Sprint highlights a May 30 schedule that also includes the $100,000 Evangeline Mile and the Opelousas, Lafayette and Acadiana Stakes.
Those races will be run on a newly-renovated surface supervised by track superintendent Ramiro Flores, who joined Evangeline Downs during the October-December quarter horse season. Flores, who has worked on surfaces at Del Mar, Pomona and Golden Gate Fields, supervised the addition of 2,000 tons of fine sand to the dirt track after the quarter-horse season.
“We ripped up and tilled five inches and amended the sand with our surface,” Flores said. “We addressed the issue of compaction, and this will help a lot. This will help us keep a constant surface both morning and evening, and I’m going to do everything I can to keep it as consistent as possible.”
“I walked over the track last Thursday,” said Acadiana native and Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Delahoussaye, “and it was fantastic. (Flores) is doing a great job ... he’s very intelligent about the track. Having that consistency is the most important thing for the safety of the horses and for the jocks.”
Lafayette native Corey Veazey has also been promoted to the position of racing secretary entering his 10th year on the Evangeline Downs staff.
“The talent and experience that these men bring to our team is some of the best in the industry,” Cox said. “We receive feedback from the owners, and we take comments we get from the people with the boots on the ground, people that are out here every day, and use that to make the racing product better.”
The track also announced a series of April promotions spotlighting the 50th anniversary in the first month of the season, available to holders of a “B Connected” card which is available free in the casino. Wednesdays will include 50-cent buffets for racegoers age 21 and older, Thursdays will feature 50-cent programs, and a $50,000 Horseshoe Challenge will be held each Friday with fans selected by drawing to throw horseshoes for prizes after each live race.
Commemorative 50th anniversary T-shirts will be given away on Saturdays in April along with chances at an instant $50,000 cash prize.
“We’re not just a track,” Cox said. “We’re a complete entertainment venue. We employ over 600 people here, so the economic impact of the track and casino is tremendous. We want this to be ‘the’ place to be in this area.”