08/10/2006 11:00PM

A complete makeover, from purses to stalls

Fair Grounds
Work on the grandstand at Fair Grounds is about 80-percent complete, said general manager Randy Soth.

Fair Grounds officially released its 2006-2007 stakes schedule Friday, a reminder that the return of horseracing to New Orleans is drawing ever nearer.

The Fair Grounds season begins, as usual, on Thanksgiving Day, which is Nov. 23 this year. But there is little else usual about the upcoming meet. There has been no racing at Fair Grounds since March 2005, and horses have not returned to the track since Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans.

But with racing just more than three months away, and the return of horses to the barn area less than two months away, Fair Grounds is steadily being prepared for its comeback meet. Besides a reworked stakes schedule with a record 65 races worth a record $7.7 million in purse money, Fair Grounds expects to offer average daily purses of at least $350,000, the highest ever in New Orleans.

Randy Soth, the Fair Grounds general manager turned construction boss, said that work on the Fair Grounds grandstand now is 80-percent complete, and the backstretch area is about 60-percent complete. The rebuilding work is being overseen by Brice General Contractors, which rebuilt the Fair Grounds after its catastrophic fire.

"It's a slow process, but I'm really well satisfied with the progress we've made," Soth said.

The grandstand required major roof repairs and extensive electrical work, besides a major cleanup. Soth estimated that work to prepare the front side of the racetrack for the meet would continue until opening day. "I'm sure they'll take advantage of every minute they have," he said.

Roof and electrical work also is proceeding steadily on backstretch buildings, and Soth said that old plywood was being changed out for new in every stall on the backstretch. The stalls have also been pressure-washed to remove residue from flooding, and workers have removed and replaced the top two inches of soil in shedrows and stalls.

The turf course and the main track should be in good shape for the meet, Soth said, and Fair Grounds has re-hired its noted former trackman Roy Fabret. Other track maintenance consultants have come in to help, including Butch Lehr, the trackman at Churchill Downs, and Art Read, the original designer of the turf course. Soth said the major issue with the track surfaces as well as the infield was saline contamination from flooding, but the salt was removed through the application of 90,000 pounds of gypsum.

Churchill Downs Inc. had pledged extensive upgrades to the backstretch when it purchased Fair Grounds out of bankruptcy, and Sean Alfortish, head of the Louisiana Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said he and Soth planned to meet next week to discuss work on backstretch dormitories. Alfortish also said the issue of finding off-track housing for horse-people wintering in New Orleans was not a major concern.

"We think there will be adequate housing," he said.

Alfortish staged a couple of battles with Churchill Downs Inc. last year, but he is enthusiastic about the upcoming Fair Grounds season, seemingly with good reason. The only Fair Grounds off-track betting site still closed, the one located at the track itself, is to reopen this week, and betting has remained strong at the OTB's, Soth said. Strong business at the parlors spurred purse increases during last season's Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs.

Attractive purses figure to lure back many major stables this season, despite challenges in a city that is still recovering, and Fair Grounds hopes returning horsemen will find a more complete stakes schedule. The Bienville and Esplanade Stakes, both in the female sprint division, return after a 10-year hiatus, and there are three new open stakes races on the calendar. The $500,000 Mervin Muniz, the highlight of the Fair Grounds turf season, has been pushed up on the calendar from late March and now is part of Louisiana Derby Day on March 10. That multi-stakes program also includes the Fair Grounds Oaks, the New Orleans Handicap, and the Bienville.

Louisiana Lagniappe Day, a statebred stakes day added to the Fair Grounds at Louisiana Downs meet last year, returns in 2007 and joins with the early-meet Louisiana Champions Day to afford the growing population of Louisiana-breds plenty of stakes opportunities. Other major stakes days are Louisiana Derby Preview Day on Feb. 10 and Road to the Derby Kickoff Day on Jan. 13.

2006-07 stakes schedule

Thur.,Nov. 23Thanksgiving Handicap3YO & Up6 furlongs$75,000
Sat.,Nov. 25Pago Hop Stakes3YO F1 mile (T)75,000
Fri.,Dec. 1Mississippi Futurity2YO**6 furlongs30,000
Sat.,Dec. 2Tenacious Handicap3YO & Up1 1/16 miles75,000
Fri.,Dec. 8Alabama Belle3YOF & Up *6 furlongs55,000
Sat.,Dec. 9CHAMPIONS DAY Q.H. JuvenileQH, 2YO*350 yards100,000
Sat.,Dec. 9CHAMPIONS DAY Q.H. DerbyQH, 3YO*400 yards100,000
Sat.,Dec. 9CHAMPIONS DAY Q.H. ClassicQH, 4YO & Up*440 yards100,000
Sat.,Dec. 9CHAMPIONS DAY Starter3YO & Up*1 1/16 miles50,000
Sat.,Dec. 9CHAMPIONS DAY JuvenileC&G, 2YO*6 furlongs100,000
Sat.,Dec. 9CHAMPIONS DAY Lassie2YO F*6 furlongs100,000
Sat.,Dec. 9CHAMPIONS DAY Sprint3YO & Up*6 furlongs100,000
Sat.,Dec. 9CHAMPIONS DAY Ladies SprintF&M, 3YO & Up*6 furlongs100,000
Sat.,Dec. 9CHAMPIONS DAY Turf3YO & Up*1 1/16 miles (T)100,000
Sat.,Dec. 9CHAMPIONS DAY LadiesF&M, 3YO & Up*1 1/16 miles100,000
Sat.,Dec. 9CHAMPIONS DAY Classic3YO & Up*1 1/8 miles150,000
Sat.,Dec. 16Buddy Diliberto MEM. Handicap3YO & Up1 1/16 miles (T)75,000
Fri.,Dec. 22Esplanade StakesF&M, 3YO & Up5 furlongs75,000
Sat.,Dec. 23Bonapaw Stakes3YO & Up5 furlongs (T)75,000
Sun.,Dec. 24Sugar Bowl Stakes2YO6 furlongs75,000
Fri.,Dec. 29Louisiana FuturityC&G, 2YO*6 furlongs40,000
Fri.,Dec. 29Louisiana Futurity2YO F*6 furlongs40,000
Sat.,Dec. 30Woodchopper Stakes3YO1 1/16 miles (T)75,000
Sun.,Dec. 31Furl Sail HandicapF&M, 3YO & Up1 1/16 miles (T)75,000
Mon.,Jan. 1Letellier MEM. Stakes3YO F6 furlongs,000
Sat.,Jan. 6Louisiana B.C. Handicap4YO & Up1 1/16 miles75,000
Sat.,Jan. 13Colonel Power Stakes4YO & Up6 furlongs100,000
Sat.,Jan. 13Dr. A.B. Leggio MEM. StakesF&M, 4YO & Up5 furlongs (T)100,000
Sat.,Jan. 13Col. E.R. Bradley Handicap4YO & Up1 1/16 miles (T)100,000
Sat.,Jan. 13Tiffany Lass Stakes3YO F1 mile100,000
Sat.,Jan. 13Lecomte Stakes (G3)3YO1 mile100,000
Sat.,Jan. 20Truly Bound HandicapF&M, 4YO & Up1 1/16 miles75,000
Sat.,Jan. 20Gentilly Stakes3YO*1 1/16 miles (T)75,000
Sat.,Jan. 27Black Gold Stakes3YO5 furlongs (T)75,000
Fri.,Feb. 2South Miss. Onrs./Brdrs Stakes3YO**6 furlongs40,000
Sat.,Feb. 3Pan Zareta B.C. StakesF&M, 4YO & Up6 furlongs75,000
Sat.,Feb. 10Taylor's Special Handicap4YO & Up5 furlongs (T)100,000
Sat.,Feb. 10Fair Grounds B.C. Hcp. (G3)4YO & Up1 1/8 miles (T)200,000
Sat.,Feb. 10Mineshaft Handicap (G3)4YO & Up1 1/16 miles200,000
Sat.,Feb. 10Silverbulletday Stakes (G3)3YO F1 1/16 miles200,000
Sat.,Feb. 10Risen Star Stakes (G3)3YO1 1/16 miles300,000
Sat.,Feb. 17Chou Croute B.C. HandicapF&M, 4YO & Up1 1/16 miles75,000
Sat.,Feb. 17Sarah Lane's Oates Stakes3YO F*1 mile (T)75,000
Tue.,Feb. 20Mardi Gras Stakes3YO7 furlongs (T)75,000
Sat.,Feb. 24Bayou B.C. Handicap (G3)F&M, 4YO & Up1 1/8 miles (T)150,000
Sat.,March 3Battler Star Stakes3YO F*6 furlongs75,000
Sat.,March 3Dixie Poker Ace Stakes4YO & Up*1 mile (T)75,000
Sat.,March 10Bienville StakesF&M, 4YO & Up5 furlongs (T)100,000
Sat.,March 10Mervin H. Muniz Jr. MEM. Hcp. (G2)4YO & Up1 1/8 miles (T)500,000
Sat.,March 10New Orleans Handicap (G2)4YO & Up1 1/8 miles500,000
Sat.,March 10Fair Grounds Oaks (G2)3YO F1 1/16 miles400,000
Sat.,March 10Louisiana Derby (G2)3YO1 1/16 miles600,000
Sat.,March 17Fortin HandicapF&M, 4YO & Up1 mile75,000
Thur.,March 22Magnolia State Stakes3YO & Up**6 furlongs20,000
Fri.,March 23Vulcan Stakes3YO *6 furlongs55,000
Sat.,March 24Duncan F. Kenner B.C. Stakes3YO & Up6 furlongs150,000
Sat.,March 24Grindstone Stakes3YO1 1/16 miles (T)100,000
Sat.,March 24Crescent City Oaks3YO F*1 mile100,000
Sat.,March 24Louisiana Lagniappe Classic4YO & Up*1 1/16 miles100,000
Sat.,March 24Red CameliaF&M, 4YO & Up*1 1/16 miles (T)100,000
Sun.,March 25Marie G. Krantz MEM. HandicapF&M, 4YO & Up1 1/16 miles (T)100,000
Sun.,March 25Bedanken Stakes3YO F1 1/16 miles (T)100,000
Sun.,March 25Crescent City Derby3YO*1 mile100,000
Sun.,March 25LA. Lagniappe Sprint4YO & Up*5 furlongs100,000
Sun.,March 25LA. Lagniappe Ladies SprintF&M, 4YO & Up* 5 furlongs100,000

*Louisiana-breds; **Mississipi-owners; *-Alabama-bred