09/14/2005 12:00AM

Extraordinary purses at Evangeline

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Just a week remains in what can best be described as a tumultuous inaugural season at the new Evangeline Downs.

The buzz and excitement of moving into new racing and casino digs in April quickly gave way after the safety of the racing surface was questioned. Those concerns resulted in a six-week suspension of racing operations in order to overhaul the track's surface.

The interruption has resulted in extremely generous purses. Even though racing was halted, the slots operation continued to generate revenue, and as this first season winds down those funds are being distributed.

On Wednesday a pair of races for $3,500 claimers, nonwinners of three, had purses of $19,000 each. Open $5,000 claimers competed for $24,000 in purse money later on the program.

For Louisiana-breds, the rewards are even more spectacular. In the third race of the evening, statebred maiden fillies entered for a $10,000 claiming price were running for $26,500. Conditioned $5,000 claimers competed for $29,000 midway through the program, and in the ninth race, $17,500 Louisiana-bred nonwinners-of-three claimers were shooting for a remarkable $35,000.

As a result, outfits based at Louisiana Downs in the northern part of the state that used to make only rare appearances here are now regularly represented. Those shippers are one of the reasons field size remains healthy, despite a rigorous five- and six-day-a-week schedule.