11/22/2011 4:05PM

Fair Grounds: Meet changing along with the times

Louis Hodges Jr.
Fair Grounds has revised the racing schedule for its 84-day meet that begins Thursday.

NEW ORLEANS – In some ways, New Orleans never changes. Tourists strolling Bourbon Street with sweet, potent drinks might be lifted from a scene 20 years ago. Live oaks arch across neighborhood streets, the smell of sweet olive mixing with the under-scent of mold creeping into and seeping out of beautiful old buildings fallen into disrepair – this could be the early 21st century or the mid-20th.

On another level, things are always changing here, especially post-Hurricane Katrina: Some little corner of the city springing back to life, other darker places falling farther out of touch.

Fair Grounds fits both patterns. The horses are back, exercising on the old oval wedged between an ancient cemetery and Gentilly Boulevard, crammed between two neighborhoods, readying for the 140th season of racing here. But Fair Grounds changes year to year, too. Gone for the 84-day 2011-2012 meet that begins Thursday is the traditional Thursday-to-Monday race week. Gone, also, is Fair Grounds position of advantage in December, when it had only the Aqueduct inner-dirt track and Hollywood Park for national competition. Gulfstream Park has pushed forward its meet opening to Dec. 3 this year, a change that might affect betting here.

“We’re going to find out how that works pretty soon,” said vice president and general manager Eric Halstrom.

Fair Grounds feels it’s already found out how Monday racing works in the current racing economy: Not well. When the New York City OTB closed in mid-December 2010, the impact was immediate on Monday racing in New Orleans, Halstrom said, and this year, when the track runs five-day weeks in December, racing will be conducted Wednesday to Sunday.

Purses aren’t changing, however. Fair Grounds, a Churchill Downs Inc. track, has video poker parlors at its nine offtrack betting locations and an ontrack slots room to infuse the purse account with a steady stream of capital. All-sources average daily handle declined about 4  percent last season compared to the previous meet, but Fair Grounds still bumped up purses in major end-of-the-meet stakes and plans to maintain the purse levels at which the 2010-2011 meet ended, about $320,000 per day including stakes, and $245,000 excluding them.

Those late-meet stakes that got bumped up last season – the Duncan Kenner to $150,000, the Fair Grounds Oaks to $500,000 and the New Orleans and Mervin Muniz handicaps to $400,000 – will offer the same purses this year during what Fair Grounds hopes will be a blockbuster closing weekend. The NCAA Men’s Final Four basketball tournament will be held in New Orleans in 2012, and Fair Grounds has moved the $1 million Louisiana Derby from a Saturday to Sunday, April 1, to fit between the two semi-final games Saturday and the Monday night final.

The Claiming Crown, the Breeders’ Cup for the blue-collar racehorse, has found a home this year at Fair Grounds: Six races worth a total of $500,000 will be contested Dec. 3. Rapid Redux, who set a modern-day 20-race win streak Monday night, is among the nominees but is far from a sure thing to ship to New Orleans.

On the backstretch, barn 46 is adorned with trainer Steve Asmussen’s signage and filled with his horses – same as always. Asmussen won another training title here last season, but the composition of his stable changed, with most of his best horses wintering in California, as they will do again this winter. Tom Amoss, Al Stall, and Mike Stidham have their usual full Fair Grounds barns. Steve Margolis will be 50-strong here this year, and Larry Jones is back in New Orleans for the first time since the 2008–2009 meet.

Rosie Napravnik upended the pecking order in the jockey standings last year, becoming the first woman to win a Fair Grounds riding title. Napravnik returned from an injury in October, and surely hopes for more of the same this season.

There are new bets on the wagering menu this year. The pick 6 has been replaced by the Black Gold 5, a pick 5 with a 50-cent minimum that will pay half the daily pool in consolation tickets unless a single bettor correctly picks five winners in the sequence. Fair Grounds also has begun offering rolling daily doubles throughout its programs.

Change, Fair Grounds hopes, has come to a turf track that ran into trouble last meet. Fair Grounds worked to improve the course during the off-season, and, racing secretary Jason Boulet said, will attempt to card fewer grass races this year, even on slow entry days.

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