Off and running: Fair Grounds track kicks off season _lowres

Advocate file photo -- Horses break from the starting gate during Thanksgiving Day racing at the Fair Grounds last November.

Spending the entire winter thoroughbred season in New Orleans has been as clockwork as Christmas for Al Stall Jr., but not so this year.

For years, the Fair Grounds Hall of Fame trainer has run exclusively at his hometown track, and he’ll be there when the season starts Nov. 22.

Starting in January, though, Stall will bounce back and forth between New Orleans and Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

“It’s uncommon for me,” Stall said. “I don’t necessarily want to, but I have to.”

In late August, Oaklawn officials announced that their track would offer increased purses for the seventh year in a row — a record $23.5 million. A month later, their counterparts at the Fair Grounds announced a streak of their own, albeit in the opposite direction.

For the fifth straight season, purses at the Fair Grounds will decline, from $25.2 million last year to $19.6 million this year. The number is so staggering because $2.7 million is being held in escrow until the resolution of a lawsuit brought by a group of quarterhorsemen contending they’re owed revenue made by video poker dating to 2008.

New Orleans has been horse racing’s winter haven in the past. Stall said there seems to be more traveling trainers with homes in New Orleans than any other track he has been to. And while many horsemen like Stall will continue to congregate at the Fair Grounds, they’re being forced to start to look at other places, like Oaklawn.

“Horsemen, they know how to do math, too,” Stall said. “When a purse is $35,000 one place and $60,000 in another, it’s pretty simple. You’re going to lose some sort of quality, no matter what.”

While Churchill Downs Inc.’s projected parimutuel return would have meant a cut larger than years past, the Fair Grounds’ parent company said, the lawsuit dashed that. It couldn’t have blindsided the company at a worse time.

It appeared CDI was finally making strides in repairing its relationship with the Louisiana horse racing community, which perceived CDI as having let the racing aspect of its business take a back seat to video poker. The backlash peaked in the spring with legislation sponsored by Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, and Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, that threatened to revoke the track’s gambling license. CDI responded by promising extensive renovation.

At the Louisiana State Racing Commission’s August meeting, Fair Grounds President Tim Bryant provided an update on where they stand. He broke down how nearly $2 million was going to improve drainage on the turf course, buy two new large video screens and purchase more commercials heralding the track’s racing rather than its slot machines.

The committee’s reaction was resoundingly positive, but the mood was somewhat subdued when, at the end of his presentation, Bryant warned the committee about how the lawsuit may affect purses at the upcoming meet. Now that it’s official, track officials continue to stress the improvements.

“It’s business as usual here,” said Howard “H” Withers, general manager of racing for the Fair Grounds. “We are controlling what we can control. We’ve really been after this. These are big boulders that we’re moving. We feel like we’re in good shape and that we’re going to have a good product and a good meet.”

Tom Amoss, another renowned local trainer, has heard second-hand that the improvements are noticeable, but he considers them a result more connected to the efforts of Connick and Moreno than CDI. Still, he said there’s an important distinction between the money funneled into the track and the money held in escrow, and he doesn’t blame the company for the extra cuts.

“However frivolous the lawsuit may be, they have to protect themselves,” Amoss said. “My only hope is that this is something that comes to a decision quickly so we can get back to the track down there because it is, unfortunately, going to be a deterrent to racing in New Orleans.”

Amoss isn’t going anywhere this winter and will support the track like he always does, he said. The concern causing nervous moments for him and other trainers are the emerging options forcing owners to “weigh the economic value of racing their horses at the Fair Grounds for smaller purses against keeping their horses with a trainer that they’re comfortable with and enjoy working with.”

One such owner is Maggi Moss, who owns the horse that earned Amoss his 3,000th victory in June and has been the leading owner at the Fair Grounds for four years running. Amoss said that while he doesn’t anticipate anything changing, he can’t speak on her behalf.

“Maggi has a tough decision,” Amoss said. “She has a trainer at Oaklawn Park. She doesn’t need to be in New Orleans.”

Moss did not return a request for comment, but she did tweet about the Fair Grounds on Tuesday: “reviewing all info today, re: fairgrounds purses, Churchill threatening no sept meet, Ill debacles #zeroconcernforowners.”

For Evelyn Benoit, whose Brittlyn Stables produced the Stall-trained studs Sunbean and Star Guitar, there are no concerns. In fact, she’s so excited about the improvements that she’s stabling 18 or 20 horses at the Fair Grounds this year compared to the 10 to 15 of previous years.

“I have lot of confidence that we will get things straightened out,” Benoit said. “I know some people are upset about it, but you have to look at the long term.”

Joe Sharp shares Benoit’s optimism. Formerly assistant trainer to Mike Maker and husband of four-time Fair Grounds leading jockey Rosie Napravnik, Sharp recently struck out on his own. He has found success, having won five of his first eight races as head trainer, and is aiming to keep it up in New Orleans.

He’ll have 25 stalls at the Fair Grounds, he said. And he’ll arrive two weeks before the start of the season and leave after the Louisiana Derby.

“The owners are excited to support me going down there, whatever the purse structure,” Sharp said. “Those of us that ride out the wake of the downtime will reap the benefits when it goes back up and the purses increase. Usually when you support a track during the downtime, they’ll remember that when things get good again.”

To make sure the upswing comes as soon as possible, members of the LRSC will sit down with Fair Grounds and Louisiana Horsemen Benevolent and Protective Association officials in the next two weeks. Following the Fair Grounds’ announcement of the cuts, the LHBPA posted an open letter stating that track’s projected figures were too low.

But even if they find some extra money to supplement the meet’s initial purse figures, it won’t come close to competing with Oaklawn unless $2.7 million held in escrow is returned — and it won’t keep some of New Orleans’ most loyal horsemen around.

“I’m not mad or upset about it,” Stall said. “I’m just going with what has to be done. There’s a big difference. I think everybody feels that way.”