08/29/2005 11:00PM

Fair Grounds damaged by Hurricane Katrina

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WWL-TV
The damaged section of the grandstand roof at Fair Grounds as taken by video from a helicopter.

Historic Fair Grounds Race Course, located in the heart of New Orleans, was not spared the heavy damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina.

The Fair Grounds property was inundated with water, and a section of the roof in the grandstand was lifted off by the storm's powerful winds. The area around the grandstand and offtrack betting and video poker building was strewn with debris, and there appeared to be other damage to the grandstand.

The racetrack was shown on a video taken from a helicopter that was broadcast on local and national television. Water could be seen covering the infield and throughout the barn area.

New Orleans had no phone service, and cell phones operating on the New Orleans area code, 504, were virtually unreachable Tuesday. A spokeswoman for Fair Grounds's owner, Churchill Downs Inc., said little firm information on specific conditions at the racetrack was available as of early Tuesday afternoon.

The spokeswoman, Julie Koenig Loignon, said "a small contingent of security officers" had ridden out the storm and had confirmed damage to the roof and the main structure.

"We really don't know the status of anything beyond that," Koenig Loignon said. "We haven't been able to get at things, really."

Koenig Loignon said Fair Grounds management personnel had evacuated the city before the storm struck, and were coordinating assessments of the property from out-of-town hotels.

Fair Grounds isn't due to open until late November, with the stable area scheduled to begin accepting horses in October. This time of year, there would have been few people or animals at the track, which is located in the Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans and sits blocks from Bayou St. John. The bayou flows between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, and presumably would have overflowed its banks during the flooding.

Fair Grounds might have been affected by a levee break Tuesday that was causing water to rise in some parts of the city. The track is located less than five miles from the site of the break, and water was said to be rising in neighborhoods around Fair Grounds.

Churchill Downs Inc. acquired Fair Grounds last year to fill a winter void in its network of racetracks. Fair Grounds is all but approved to operate slot machines, and construction of a slots parlor at the track was to have begun soon.

Much of the Louisiana breeding industry also lay in the path of the hurricane. Many horse farms are located on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain in St. Tammany Parish, which sustained significant damage. Folsom, the center of horse farm country, lies some 21 miles from the north coast of Lake Pontchartrain.