08/12/2009 12:00AM

Fair Grounds main-track surface gets renovations


A new date and purse for the Louisiana Derby announced on Tuesday afternoon are only part of significant changes to the Fair Grounds and its stakes schedule. Following through on a commitment it made last racing season, Fair Grounds has been engaged in dirt-track renovations since July.

Eric Halstrom, Fair Grounds vice president and general manager, said on Wednesday that Fair Grounds has added 3,000 yards of local river sand to its main track over the summer. The sand component of the racing surface had degraded over time, and the dirt track probably was out of balance during the 2008-2009 meet. Fair Grounds experienced a brief breakdown spike in late January, but the pace of serious equine injuries abated as rapidly as it erupted.

"We've been conditioning [the surface] here the last month," Halstrom said. "It's changed quite a bit. We've had it tested since, and it's much more in line with what we had hoped."

Brian Jabelman, hired as the trackman last year, no longer is with Fair Grounds, Halstrom said. Jabelman was forced to return to his native Canada because of visa issues. Michael Depew, a track-surface specialist, has been consulting for Fair Grounds since Jabelman's departure. Ian Gamble, a Canterbury Park track maintenance man, was hired in July to replace Jabelman and will come to Fair Grounds in October. Fair Grounds hosts a brief Quarter Horse meet later this month and opens for Thoroughbred training on Oct. 5 in advance of its Nov. 6 opening.

Work on the racing surface combined with a ramped up 2009-2010 stakes schedule signal that Fair Grounds and parent company CDI intend to make the most of capital being generated by an ontrack slot-machine parlor that opened last year. The stakes schedule released Tuesday is worth $7.24 million, up about $600,000 from last year, according to Halstrom. Only two minor races were dropped from the schedule, and Fair Grounds added two six-figure races for older female route horses, filling what has long been a void in that division. Besides boosting the Louisiana Derby purse from $600,000 to $750,000, and shifting it to five weeks before the Kentucky Derby, Fair Grounds also bumped the purse for the Louisiana Derby prep, the Feb. 20 Risen Star Stakes, back to $300,000 after lowering it to $200,000 in 2009.

In another change, the Fair Grounds Oaks will be anchor a multi-stakes Friday card (March 26) the day before the Louisiana Derby program.

"Part of it was looking at the Oaks-Derby experience at Churchill, and Pimlico does that too with the Preakness," Halstrom said. "We're turning the Louisiana Derby almost into a week like that."