Beychok: After a tumultuous offseason, it’s time to get back to the business of racing at the Fair Grounds _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Exercise riders put horses through their paces at the Fair Grounds.

The Fair Grounds is getting a second chance to make a first impression.

The do-over comes on the heels of a tumultuous and contentious offseason involving criticism from fans, owners, trainers, the Louisiana legislature and the Louisiana Racing Commission.

During and immediately following the 2013-14 racing season, complaints about the track’s conditions and operations reached a vitriolic level. That prompted legislators, specifically Rep. Helena Moreno (D-New Orleans) and Patrick Connick (R-Metairie), to jump into the fray by conducting hearings on a bill they filed to mandate Churchill Downs Inc. — owner of the Fair Grounds — invest profits derived from slot machines at the track into meaningful capital improvements to the physical plant, the backstretch barns and the water-logged, under-utilized turf course.

The legislature conducted the contentious hearings hoping to hold CDI accountable for presenting a competitive racing meet and experience that Louisiana racing fans have enjoyed for more than 140 years.

The Fair Grounds is the nation’s third-oldest racetrack, and that was evident last year if you listened to complaints from customers, owners and trainers. Old televisions, stables and barns in need of paint and remodeling and a broken-down video screen that offered no live action adorned the infield. The Fair Grounds, rebuilt following a fire in 1993, was showing its age and recent neglect, while CDI showed little to no interest in making real improvements.

But attitudes at CDI changed when the Louisiana Racing Commission asserted its authority and oversight by delaying a routine renewal of the state license that CDI needs to operate its racing dates and slot machines.

CDI wisely decided to put some polish on the prized gem instead of treating the track like a piece of costume jewelry that can be ignored or discarded. CDI got the message, and horse racing fans will get a first look at the improvements when the gates open Friday.

Fans walking through the clubhouse or grandstand probably won’t notice the 700 new televisions or the new paint jobs and skylights backstretch barns received. And they won’t be able to see the new pipes placed in the turf course to improve drainage and the usefulness of the turf course.

But even casual and first-time fans will get an eyeful when they step onto the apron of the track or view the infield from their clubhouse or grandstand seats. This year, the view will be filled by an unmistakable new item: a 15-feet-high, 23-feet-long video screen that offers live action views from almost every racetrack vantage point.

Now, instead of an old static screen that stuck out like a sore thumb hitch-hiking a ride to racetrack mediocrity, fans can watch the live race on the new video screen situated behind the tote board or on an additional smaller screen sitting above the paddock enclosure.

CDI is entering its 10th year of ownership of the Fair Grounds, and here’s hoping it doesn’t take another 10 years to see some more much-needed improvements.