04/10/2017 11:20AM

Evangeline takes the baton from Fair Grounds

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Racing in Louisiana shifts to Evangeline Downs on Wednesday night, when the Opelousas track opens for an 84-date meet that runs through Sept. 2. The season is starting about a week later than usual, playing off the close of the Fair Grounds meet in New Orleans on April 2.

“Fair Grounds ended later, so we’re starting later,” said Chris Warren, director of racing for Evangeline. “It gives Fair Grounds horsemen a chance to move over.”

Evangeline will race Wednesday through Saturday nights, with a first post of 5:40 Central. The highlight of the track’s 24-race stakes schedule, worth $1.7 million, is the $100,000 Evangeline Mile. The race for 3-year-olds and up will be one of three stakes run June 3. Fear the Cowboy won last year’s Evangeline Mile and went on to win the Grade 3 Skip Away at Gulfstream on March 25.

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Other highlights of the stakes schedule include Louisiana Legends Night on July 8. The program of eight stakes for Louisiana-breds is worth $750,000. Evangeline will spotlight 2-year-olds bred in Louisiana on July 29 with a pair of $75,000 divisions of the D.S. “Shine” Young Futurity. The track will put on a pair of 2-year-old stakes for open company Sept. 2, with the $50,000 Evangeline Downs Princess and the $50,000 Evangeline Downs Prince.

Purses are projected to average $140,000 a program, said Warren.

Warren said there have been a handful of improvements to the racing side of operations since last season. The track, which also has a casino with more than 1,200 slot machines, has built a receiving barn, made upgrades to its dirt and turf courses, and installed 24 new hotwalking machines in the stable area.

“There’s a brand-new receiving barn, and it holds 70 horses,” Warren said. “We converted the old receiving barn to a regular barn.”

The changes enable Evangeline to hold more than 1,030 horses on its backstretch. In the past, the track had been limited to about 960.

Efren Loza Jr., who trains Fear the Cowboy, is among the trainers expected to have divisions at Evangeline, along with defending champ Karl Broberg, J.R. Caldwell, Danny Pish, and Al Stall Jr. The riding colony includes defending champ Colby Hernandez, Diego Saenz, Ashley Broussard, and Gerard Melancon. Broberg and Saenz won the recent titles at Delta Downs, the sister track of Evangeline. Both facilities are owned by Boyd Gaming.

Warren said Evangeline’s goal is to continue to build handle, and to that end, the track has worked with Daily Racing Form to expand the reach of its past performances. The track will now appear in more editions in the Midwest and on the East Coast.