On Christmas Day, Fair Grounds senior racing director Jason Boulet had more to celebrate than the holiday.
The race track, he said, was enjoying an 18-percent increase in handle, or money bet, compared to the 2015-16 season.
Then Boulet received a phone call that changed everything and threatened the Fair Grounds' meet. An equine virus had been discovered in one of the barns. It began to spread, touching more than 35 horses on the backside.
“When it first started, as it built momemtum and it looked like it was out of control, it lookd like it could have been here a long, long time,” said Boulet, who has worked at the Fair Grounds for 10 years.
Now, however, as the Fair Grounds enters Louisiana Derby Day on Saturday — its second-to-last racing day of the meet — this season is defined by a strong rebound.
“We struggled for some time,” Boulet said. “It was almost a two-month period where we were in and out, and it had a major effect on us.”
The track, which had been quarantined, was down 2 to 4 percent on its handle though late February. Now, though, it's looking like the track has a very good chance of breaking even for the season, Boulet said.
“That would be a big success story for us,” he said.
Boulet cites quick action. Louisiana Racing Commissioner Bob Wright got with the Louisiana Department of Agriculture, and they put protocols in place.
“Once that happened, we followed it closely,” Boulet said. “The quarantine was lifted on Feb. 20, and that's when things really started to turn around for us.
“People who were shipping horses in from out of state started saying, 'The Fair Grounds has done what it was supposed to do, and things are OK.' They showed a confidence in us.”
The lifting of the quarantine came five days before one of the Fair Grounds' biggest races — Louisiana Derby Preview Day on Feb. 25, the Risen Star Stakes for top 3-year-old colts and the Rachel Alexandra Stakes for top 3-year-old fillies.
The Fair Grounds staff worked hard, but local trainers played a huge part in the turnover, keeping the faith.
“It's like anything in our game,” local trainer Joe Sharp said. “You withstand the test of time and go through the ups and downs of horse racing. You just ride out the wake and nobody panicked as far as guys who have staying power in this business, and we all came out fine for it.”
The first big race of the 3-year-old campaign — the Kickoff to Derby Day on Jan. 21 — happened during the quarantine and appeared all but lost. With no horses able to come in or out, a new, stronger cast of trainers that had been recruited helped to beef up the back end with quantity and quality, helping make it a success.
During the difficult stretch, trainers heard rumors that the big race's purses would be cut to keep the track going. The cut didn't happen, however. From financial and morale standpoints, that was a boost to the owners and trainers, and for the track.
Trainer Neil Howard said since the rough stretch passed, he hasn't seen many negative effects.
“It obviously hurt the trainers that were involved because they couldn't get to race their horses all winter,” Howard said. “But it's kind of an afterthought for most of us now, and we're just moving forward. But the meet really bounced back and continues to go really well.”
Boulet added: “If you look at our day-to-day program and how may allowance races we filled with the quarantine, it's pretty impressive.”
Boulet said there were lessons to learn and a positive that came out of it.
Some races, particularly the ones involving top fillies, had short fields this season. However, Boulet and Sharp said this year's 3-year-old class has not had good depth nationwide.
Boulet said there's something to be learned from the Fair Grounds' experience this racing season.
“Things turned for the best when a common-sense protocol was put in the place,” he said. “The protocol is now set.
“I think Louisiana learned a valuable lesson — the things to do and don't do and to just get it under control real fast. On our end, a lot of trainers don't realize the importance of bio-security. Now there's an emphasis on cleaning bridles and not sharing equipment between horses.
“Once a horse is affected, it is spread from human contact. We're trying to build education for the trainers.”