09/12/2005 11:00PM

37-day fall meet agreed upon


Churchill Downs Inc. and the Louisiana division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association have agreed to conduct a 37-day race meet at Louisiana Downs this fall and winter, a curtailed version of a more than four-month Fair Grounds meet wiped out by Hurricane Katrina.

The proposed meet would begin Nov. 19, a Saturday, and run through Jan. 22. After the opening weekend, the meet would consist of four-day race weeks, with average daily purses of $275,000. CDI, which acquired Fair Grounds last year, said in a press release that the meet would have a "limited stakes schedule." Four stakes - the Risen Star, Silverbulletday, Bayou Breeders' Cup, and Duncan Kenner - would be held Jan. 14. Louisiana Champions Day is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 10, and the New Orleans Handicap for Jan. 7. The release said the Louisiana Derby and Fair Grounds Oaks would be dropped from the schedule.

Some issues must be resolved before the meet can be formally scheduled. A Quarter Horse meet set for November at Louisiana Downs, in Bossier City, La., would have to be moved to Evangeline Downs. Also, the race dates awarded to Fair Grounds and some $8 million in purse funds earmarked for the Fair Grounds meet would have to be transferred. The changes would have to be approved by the Louisiana Racing Commission.

The commission's executive director, Charles Gardiner, said Monday that the commission planned to swiftly call a meeting once CDI and the horsemen's group came forward with an official plan, and that the body was likely to approve the proposed meet. A waiver to deviate from the state-approved racing schedule would then need to be obtained, either from Gov. Kathleen Blanco or from the state legislature.

Sean Alfortish, president of the state HBPA, had sought a longer meet, and said he expected membership in his organization to be divided on the plan.

"I think some people will be satisfied with it, I think some won't," Alfortish said.

The Fair Grounds-at-Louisiana Downs meet would fill a gap between the end of Churchill's fall meet and the start of Oaklawn Park's meet on Jan. 20. Many horsemen who typically race at Fair Grounds have not decided how and where they will spend their winter, but the 37-day meet would figure to draw many Fair Grounds regulars.

"Absolutely I'll race there," said Steve Asmussen, who runs the most active barn at Fair Grounds meets.

Trainer Dallas Stewart, a New Orleans native, said he "probably" would race at the Louisiana Downs meet. "Maybe I'd go to Oaklawn after that. The timing could be okay."

Fair Grounds, located in the Mid-City neighborhood in New Orleans, sustained damage during the hurricane, but isn't in one of the hardest-hit areas of the city. Though repairs could be made in time for the late November opening, New Orleans will not even have a regular population or fully functioning infrastructure for many months.

And while the replacement meet will not be confused with a regular Fair Grounds season, nor Bossier City with New Orleans, Alfortish said, "I wanted to at least give these guys some chance to race."