01/10/2014 3:04PM

Fair Grounds cuts four stakes, reduces purses of 12 others

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Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans announced Friday it was eliminating four stakes races and reducing the purses of 12 others this meet because of a sharp decline in betting handle in November and December.

The canceled races are the $100,000 Tiffany Lass on Feb. 8, the $150,000 New Orleans Ladies on March 8, the $75,000 Allen Lacombe on March 1, and the $75,000 Black Gold on March 1.

The purse of the Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks on March 29 was trimmed from $500,000 to $400,000, while the Grade 2 Mervin Muniz on the same day was cut from $400,000 to $300,000. The purse of the March 8 Duncan Kenner was reduced from $150,000 to $100,000. Nine other $75,000 stakes had their purses trimmed to $60,000.

The cuts save the Fair Grounds purse account $785,000 and allow the track to avoid cutting overnight purses, at least for the time being. Management at Fair Grounds, which is owned by Churchill Downs Inc., said the stakes cuts were made after consultation with some horsemen. Purses at the track are subsidized by betting at video poker machines and slot machines.

“We’re hoping that the handle will bring itself back toward the tail of this meet and we don’t have to touch the overnights,” Fair Grounds president Tim Bryant said when announcing the cuts to horsemen late Friday morning.

Average daily handle at Fair Grounds during 25 race days in November and December fell 17 percent from the same period in 2012, according to the Louisiana State Racing Commission. All-sources average daily handle was $2,261,991 through Dec. 31 compared to $2,726,909 during 27 racing days in November and December 2012.

Betting probably has been negatively impacted by problems with the turf course. The course was renovated during the offseason but has recently failed to dry sufficiently after taking rain. On Jan. 5 and again Thursday, turf racing was abandoned mid-card because of concern over soft, slippery conditions. Between Nov. 22 and Jan. 5, the track conducted only 37 turf races, down from 58 during the same span last season.

The cancellation of the Tiffany Lass and the New Orleans Ladies leaves Fair Grounds with a void in the older filly and mare dirt-route stakes division, though that has long been a soft spot on the local schedule. The New Orleans Ladies was created in 2010 to lure Rachel Alexandra and since has drawn short fields.

It has been a rough several weeks for Fair Grounds, which saw its general manager for racing, Eric Halstrom, leave somewhat unexpectedly this fall, filling his position with Howard Withers, who never has worked as a high-level racing executive. The starting gate has malfunctioned just before a race twice this meet, and the track’s longtime starter recently was fired. On Tuesday, track maintenance workers watered the dirt surface before a freeze that night, which contributed to the cancellation of training Wednesday.

– additional reporting by Bob Fortus