01/23/2006 1:00AM

Change in meet's venue depresses handle


With the prize money being given away by the time the 2005-06 Fair Grounds meet concluded Sunday, one would imagine owners and trainers clamoring for more of the same next season. But a chorus of voices has united in another direction, urging a return to New Orleans when the next racing season commences.

Hurricane Katrina forced Churchill Downs Inc., the owner of Fair Grounds, to move this year's meet to Louisiana Downs in Bossier City, La., and the meet was shortened from 82 days last year to 37 this season. While field size and purses went through the roof, average daily handle on this year's races was nowhere near as high as last year.

Direct handle comparisons are difficult, since regular Fair Grounds meets don't pick up steam until January, and the track's biggest races come in March. Still, despite a surge in business during the final month, average daily handle from all sources fell by 13.1 percent, from $4,184,980 last season to $3,638,102. daily ontrack handle declined 27.2 percent, from $221,481 to $161,252, though this comes as no surprise, given the larger population base in New Orleans, and the fact Louisiana Downs typically is dark during the winter.

But four-day racing weeks combined with some $1.8 million in previously accumulated purse money and strong business at Fair Grounds's off-track betting parlors helped to send purses to record levels in Louisiana. Purses were raised several times, and wound up averaging $388,126 a day, up from $267,784, a 44.9 percent increase. Average field size spiked from 8.32 last season to 9.46.

"We wanted to provide a mechanism to maintain continuity in Louisiana racing, and we did that," said Fair Grounds president Randy Soth.

Soth has divided his time this winter between Louisiana Downs and New Orleans. Now, the focus turns to the future of hurricane-damaged Fair Grounds. The track still is without a roof, which has allowed pools of water to form on three floors of the facility, Soth said. While crews are working on the grandstand as well as the backstretch, where 46 of 48 barns suffered wind damage and all buildings were flooded, Fair Grounds remains without electricity. Soth said that a new roof was expected to be in place by March, and that the track still planned to host the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival in April, after which work would begin to restore the dirt and turf courses.

"Our position all along has been to get racing there next year," Soth said.

But CDI has not yet committed to a 2006-07 meet in New Orleans, expressing concerns about operating in a still-recovering city with altered demographics and damaged infrastructure. Applications for next year's racing dates must be filed with the Louisiana Racing Commission by April, and CDI received special legislative approval to conduct a shortened meet away from its own facility for this season only. Louisiana racetracks are statutorily required to race 80 days and 20 weeks at their own facility in order to conduct simulcasting and run offtrack betting, video poker, and slot-machine parlors.

"They're waiting to see what things are going to look like, which is fine for their shareholders," said Sean Alfortish, head of the Louisiana Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "But as far as my group is concerned, they're running in New Orleans this year."

Alfortish, who called the Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs "an overwhelming success," was instrumental in negotiating a longer meet this winter than CDI initially had proposed, and said his group is adamant that racing return to New Orleans in 2006.

"As I sit here right now, I can think of no reason or rationale to say that we need to move the meet out of New Orleans next year," Alfortish said. "To compound the difficulty, Louisiana Downs and I have negotiated to continue their race dates next year through Nov. 4, with a Quarter Horse meet in mid-November through late December. There's no way we can do the same type of meet we did this time."

* New Orleans or Bossier City - no matter for Steve Asmussen, who grabbed another Fair Grounds training title with 38 victories. Roman Chapa led the jockey standings with 45 wins.