04/07/2014 12:49PM

Evangeline Downs: New $300K Turf Sprint adds spice to meet

Barbara D. Livingston
Al Stall Jr. shown last summer at Saratoga, will base his Louisiana string of horses at the Evangeline Downs Training Center this year.

OPELOUSAS, La. – Evangeline Downs opens its 2014 season Wednesday night with a brand-new signature race and retooled stakes schedule, some new faces in the training ranks, a new racing secretary, a remodeled grandstand, and even a new track photographer.

What will not be new, however, is Evangeline’s ability to draw large fields. The opening evening’s 11-race program drew a whopping 119 entries, plus nine also-eligibles.

“Entries went all right,” understated Chris Warren, director of racing operations at Evangeline Downs and Delta Downs, both of which are owned by Boyd Gaming. Warren also will double as Evangeline’s racing secretary for the foreseeable future.

“It’s going to keep me busy, that’s for sure,” said Warren, who also will oversee the Delta Downs Quarter Horse season, which begins April 26. “We wrote some races that we thought would fill that didn’t and some others that did better than we thought. We’re just feeling things out, see what we have on the backstretch.”

New to the stakes schedule is the $300,000 Evangeline Turf Sprint, a five-furlong dash that will anchor a rare afternoon program June 21. Joining the Turf Sprint on the card will be the $100,000 Evangeline Mile, the $100,000 Opelousas Stakes, and the Lafayette and Acadiana, worth $70,000 each.

“We are very excited to inaugurate the Evangeline Turf Sprint for our horsemen and our fans here in Louisiana and around the country,” Warren said. “Turf sprints have become increasingly popular in recent years on a national scale, and we are extremely proud to bring one to the Southern region of the U.S.”

Other season highlights include Louisiana Legends Night, which was moved from its usual midsummer date to May 24. The Legends Night program will include eight Louisiana-bred stakes worth a cumulative $750,000. Two divisions of the popular D.S. “Shine” Futurity are slated for July 5.

The trainer ranks will include Al Stall Jr., who has a string stabled at the nearby Evangeline Training Center after being a longtime fixture at Louisiana Downs.

“It works out great for us,” Stall said. “We shipped over from Fair Grounds a couple of weeks ago, and we can stay here with our Louisiana operation until Fair Grounds opens up again in the fall. The training surface is great. We are excited to be here.”

Also new to Evangeline will be Shane Wilson, who was allotted the maximum of 36 stalls.

“Boyd does a lot of things right when it comes to racing.” said Wilson, who finished eighth in the standings at the recently completed Delta Thoroughbred meeting and was third last year at Louisiana Downs. “They run a first-class operation. Unlike a lot of tracks with gaming, they really listen and are willing to work with you.”

Evangeline has reconfigured and upgraded its first-floor grandstand and simulcast area with the addition of a dozen high-definition televisions. Additional seating and an expanded snack bar on the first floor are other improvements made to enhance the customer experience.

Coady Photography has landed the contract for Evangeline beginning this year. The company has long been the photo vendor at Delta and Oaklawn and, more recently, at Keeneland in the Midwestern region.

The opening-night feature is a one-mile optional-claiming race that carries third-level allowance conditions. Stall will send out Limonte, who comes off a game three-quarter-length victory in allowance company at Delta in February. Colby Hernandez will ride.

Last year’s training champ, Karl Broberg, will be represented by Idefromthebayou, who has been installed as the 5-2 favorite. Diego Saenz, who won the 2013 riding title, will be aboard.