Horse racing is in the blood of the Fair Grounds’ new senior racing director, Jason Boulet.
His grandfather, Pierre LeBlanc, owned a “bush track” in Lafayette, and Boulet used to make trips to New Orleans for horse races with his uncle, trainer S.J. “Pete” LeBlanc, for whom he was a groom as a young man.
“Winning a race at the Fair Grounds or coming here for Thanksgiving was always something special,” said Boulet, 48, who was promoted after nine years as the track’s racing secretary. “It was like coming to the major leagues. So, (Fair Grounds president) Tim Bryant making me the racing director is kind of like being in my dream job.”
After a new drainage system for the track led to a successful meet last year, Boulet is hoping for a dream racing season at the Fair Grounds in his first year in charge. There are indications, he said, that it could surpass last year’s result, which he said was the best since before Hurricane Katrina.
For starters, Boulet pointed to the number of applications for the 1,800 stalls by horsemen looking to race at the Fair Gounds this meet.
“We had 3,100 applications,” he said. “The stall application process is better than before. That’s a problem a lot of tracks would like to have.”
That has put the Fair Grounds in position to select more quality owners and trainers to race here.
“It’s a numbers game, and this is a business,” Boulet said. “Our job in (the racing office) is to put the best product on but at the same time have as many horses in each race. That’s what drives the revenue, our handle and people betting.”
As racing director, Boulet oversees the Fair Grounds — the racing office, the track’s ground and turf surfaces, the backstretch and horsemen’s relations. He is grooming Scott Jones to take over as racing secretary; he will set up and promote races and run the office.
Bryant said Boulet is the man to continue the momentum built last season.
“He rolls up his sleeves and works,” Bryant said. “He was an integral part of our team (through improvements), and he’s a great fit as the director. His experience speaks for itself. He worked under (former directors) Mervin Muniz and (Howard) Withers.”
Former Saints quarterback Jake Delhomme, a third-generation horseman also, grew up down the road from Boulet in their area of Lafayette right on the Breaux Bridge border. He said he has always known Boulet as being conscientious.
“He wants to make sure he’s doing the right thing, wants to make sure every base is covered,” Delhomme said. “Jason started out very young cleaning stalls. He worked for a (track) veterinarian, then he worked in the racing office. He was a jockey agent. When he was racing secretary at Evangeline (2005-08), he did a lot of things for racing there, such as a legends night that brought back great jockeys from the area and honored historic racing people.”
As president of the Horsemen’s Association, representing horse owners and trainers, Bernard Chatters has to work with Boulet, albeit on different sides.
“We’re in talks about many things, from getting stalls to contract issues to the backside of the track,” Chatters said. “Everybody is not going to get stalls, so everybody is not going to be happy. But we have a good working relationship. Things are good. I will say this: He has always been very professional.”
Due to pressure from the state legislature and the Horsemen’s Association, the Fair Grounds has had to make improvements to the backstretch, home to the horse stalls and exercise areas, cafeteria for jockeys and groomsmen and the jockeys’ and groomsmen’s areas. Owner/trainer Louie Roussel said Boulet often is seen early in the morning, suit on, riding in a golf cart and visiting trainers, making sure everything is OK.
“When he was racing secretary, he kept his door open,” Roussel said. “Most racing secretaries kept their door closed; you have to knock. If he could help you, he would. He would write things down. That’s how meticulous he is, and precise. He’s very job-oriented, very loyal company man for (track owner) Churchill Downs. It’s great for the Fair Grounds and the horsemen because he is a horseman. He understands the problems we have at the backstretch. He doesn’t stay in the office.”
State mandate or not, Boulet has made sprucing up the backstretch a personal project.
“I have a deep love for the backstretch; I grew up there,” he said. “We’ve done tons of new things, and we’ll do more. It makes a difference when the horsemen get here and they feel that (we’re) doing everything right.”
Things appear to be going right, track-wise, which is most important. The Fair Grounds brought back all of its stakes races and added two stakes and brought back the Colonel Power. More important, the purse was increased for the Louisiana Derby, the prep race for the Kentucky Derby, from $750,000 to $1 million.
“Due to some issues going on with the horsemen, we had to cut the purse on the Louisiana Derby,” Boulet said. “So now we’re on a fair playing field with the competition — Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn and Keeneland. All their preps are $1 million.”
For winter tracks, it’s about the prep races leading to the Kentucky Derby. It’s a competition among tracks to get the best 3-year-old horses. That’s an area Churchill Downs wants to see improve.
“We’ve been on a 20-year drought as far as a horse winning the Kentucky Derby who ran here, who won the Louisiana Derby,” Boulet said. “The last one was Grindstone (in 1996).”
Boulet said he’s encouraged. Improved drainage has made for more consistent turf racing, and that has had a residual effect. There were fewer scratches last year by trainers who didn’t want their turf horses switched onto dirt. Also, the turf was not as beaten up last year and in meets before the improvements.
“The word has gotten around that the Fair Grounds is a safe and excellent winter race track to run your horses and train them,” Boulet said.
More races and more horses in each race appeal to owners and trainers and also race patrons, the bettors.
“People don’t like betting on six-horse fields,” Boulet said. “They like gimmicks, and 10-, 12-horse fields allow for more kind of gimmicks, and you make more money.”
Competition for stalls has given the track a good field to start the season, but it will get better soon, he said.
“We’re still 400 horses short that are not here from Churchill (Downs), our sister track,” he said. “Those are more of the quality horses. We’ve carded some real nice races without them.
“So we’re hoping, when they get here, things will get even better.”