11/20/2012 5:43PM

Fair Grounds: Attractive purses but plenty of competition greets opener

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Barbara D. Livingston
Rosie Napravnik will be seeking her third straight Fair Grounds riding title.

NEW ORLEANS – There’s no such thing as status quo at the Fair Grounds race meet. During the last 20 years, the cozy New Orleans track always seems to be perceived as falling down or rising up, and the 84-day 2012-2013 racing season begins Thursday in more of a sky-is-falling than sky’s-the-limit moment.

A somewhat shiny veneer still covers this place. The Louisiana Derby, to be run March 30, has a $1  million purse and is a focal point of the Triple Crown Trail. The Fair Grounds Oaks, run on the derby card, pays out a $500,000 purse and has become a hotbed for Kentucky Oaks contenders. Average daily purses – boosted by revenues from slots and video poker marchines – are budgeted at $335,000 including stakes and $250,000 without them, more than respectable for a long meet. And while there has been talk about the riders not coming to Fair Grounds this year – Robby Albarado, Corey Lanerie – the top seven jocks from last season are back, as are the top 10 trainers by wins.

But Gulfstream Park’s pushed-up opening in early December hurt Fair Grounds last year. Oaklawn Park, a comfortable van ride away, is awash in cash and throwing it at purses: Consider that New Orleans native Al Stall plans to run a 20-some-odd string at Oaklawn this season, the first time he’s stabled there since the post-Hurricane Katrina, Fair Grounds-at-Louisiana Downs meet.

Confronted with the Gulfstream challenge and difficulty filling many categories of races early last season, Fair Grounds altered its racing schedule, sticking with base four-day racing weeks until March. Even so, there’s concern about a horse shortage. Louisiana-breds abound – there are five Louisiana-bred races on Thursday’s opening card, and six on Friday – but the Fair Grounds stables are a patchwork of empty stalls right now. Many of those empties will be filled with horses coming from the Churchill meet that ends this weekend, but some Kentucky trainers are going to other venues this winter, and about 150 horses at Hawthorne – horses who would have been very useful filling early cards – are stuck in Chicago because of an equine herpesvirus quarantine.

“I’m not concerned in the long run,” said Fair Grounds assistant general manager and vice president, Eric Halstrom. “But I have a real concern about the Chicago horses. Louisiana does have a lot of horses, and that’s something in our favor. We did everything we said we were going to do in terms of adding more racing opportunities at the end of the meet, and that should help.”

Halstrom said improving last season’s business, rather than merely holding the line, remains the goal. But it’s a decent bet Fair Grounds and its parent company, Churchill Downs Inc., would take an approximation of last season’s business, which saw a 2-percent decline in average all-sources daily handle.

The handle this year will be administered by a new tote company, with CDI-owned United Tote taking over from Amtote. Local players will have to adapt to new wagering screens. Players everywhere dabbling in exotics will find greater opportunities to spread for a big score, with Fair Grounds now offering 50-cent base bets on most gimmicks. Halstrom said the track will introduce mobile wagering Jan.  1.

Seven Friday Starlight cards, one more than last season, will be held, each with a 5 p.m. Central first post. Thursday’s opening card will have an earlier than usual 11 a.m. start.

As was the case before last season, the turf course here looks beautiful. The backstretch drainage alterations performed during the offseason were nothing like the extensive renovations that took place before the 2011-2012 meet. And, in an upset, no one has been heard complaining about the condition of the main track during two mornings on the backstretch this week.

Bustling around the backside was one Rosie Napravnik, who has returned to New Orleans seeking her third straight riding title. She swamped the competition last season, her 111 wins 32 more than runner-up James Graham. Graham, Miguel Mena, Shaun Bridgmohan, and Richard Eramia, should figure prominently, as might newcomers Mark Guidry and Leandro Goncalves.

Perennial leading trainer Steve Asmussen has his usual full barn of runners, but like last year, Asmussen’s higher-quality stock will be concentrated in California. Even splitting his stable between Fair Grounds and Oaklawn, Stall still has Fair Grounds firepower. Among his string will be the undefeated 2-year-old filly Sign, who will be pointed to the $200,000 Rachel Alexandra Stakes on Feb. 23. Gal About Town, second to Sign in the Pocahontas, will winter in New Orleans for trainer Bret Calhoun, who has a major presence here this winter. The Larry Jones string will include Kentucky Oaks winner Believe You Can, as well as talented 3-year-old Mark Valeski.

Whatever the state of the local 3-year-old colony in 2013, out-of-towners have even more incentive to ship with purse boosts to the Jan. 19 Lecomte Stakes ($175,000 to $200,000) and the Feb. 23 Risen Star, which got a major $100,000 bump up to $400,000 this year.

And finally, the meet should bring about an appearance (or 10) from the famed Hero of Order. The winner of the 2012 Louisiana Derby still is seeking his first win since that monumental upset on April 1.