11/19/2013 3:50PM

Fair Grounds: Opening day comes early

Barbara D. Livingston
The 84-day Fair Grounds meet begins Friday.

NEW ORLEANS – The rolling eight-foot-high metal gate on the Mystery Street entrance still was broken as of Tuesday morning, open wide enough only for foot and bicycle traffic to pass into and out of the racetrack. On the backstretch, new sections of fencing have been erected at the gap by the clocker’s stand at the half-mile pole to keep runaway horses from rushing off the track during morning training here. But come mid-afternoon Friday, all the gates – presumably – will be thrown wide open and the horses encouraged to run at whatever breakneck clip they can muster when Fair Grounds commences its 142nd racing season.

Opening-day entries were taken Tuesday, with 90 horses entered in nine races on the first of 84 racing days this fall, winter, and early spring. With Churchill’s fall meet still in full swing, many of the racing-related winter residents here – both equine and human – have yet to ship from Kentucky, a fact evident on Friday’s program, which includes four races restricted to Louisiana-breds. The maligned Fair Grounds grass course, renovated during the off-season, won’t see opening-card action, as the two grass races in the condition book attracted only seven entrants each and were scrapped by the racing office.

Fair Grounds, meanwhile, scrapped its traditional Thanksgiving opening this season because the track, by state law, must run an 84-day meeting. With Thanksgiving falling so late on the calendar, Fair Grounds had three options to make the dates quota: add days to the end of its meet and run into the first week in April; lard the middle of the meet with extra racing days, which would tax an already shaky horse population; or tack three pre-Thanksgiving cards onto the front end of the season.

“That was a decision made before I started working,” said Howard “H” Withers, Fair Grounds’s general manager of racing for only the past seven weeks. “My understanding was starting early looked like it would have the best economic impact.”

This is Fair Grounds’s earliest opening since 2009, when the meet began Nov. 6. Withers was helping run the Fair Grounds offtrack betting parlors at the time, but was aware of the difficulties that accompanied that early start.

“Basically, it fell flat on its face, as I recall,” Withers said. “My guess – my hope – is that it’ll be much better received this time around.”

Opening day qualifies as a Starlight Racing card although first post is 3 p.m., a couple hours earlier than the regular Friday night programs. The last of the nine races, however, won’t be run until almost 10 p.m., since the program is enhanced – or burdened, depending on your take – by “exotic” animal races, two for ostriches and one for camels. There are three 1 1/2-hour gaps between actual horse races to allow for the non-wagering contests to be conducted.