04/19/2017 1:20PM

Fair Grounds: Quarantine key factor in all-sources handle drop

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It was fortunate that only one horse died and only one other got seriously ill during an equine herpesvirus outbreak at Fair Grounds during the 2016-17 racing season that ended April 2, but the EHV-1 event still laid low the meeting.

The season that began Nov. 19 was cruising along in great shape through the end of December. The first of two EHV-1 cases that involved the more serious neuropathogenic strain of the EHV-1 virus was diagnosed Dec. 26. Not long afterward, the entire backstretch was quarantined, meaning no shippers could come to race at Fair Grounds, and several barns were put under additional quarantine restrictions forbidding horses stabled in them from racing. January turned into a disaster, and the meet never recovered.

In the end, according to information provided Tuesday by the Louisiana Racing Commission, all-sources average daily handle during the 80-day meet fell 8 percent from the 2015-16 season, to $2,435,096 from $2,649,850. Average handle per race (there were 774 this season compared with 791 last season) dropped 5 percent, to $254,833 from $268,000. Average handle per starter was down 4 percent, to $30,627 from $31,979.

Average daily all-sources handle during January, when the EHV-1 situation was felt most acutely, dropped 25 percent. Year-to-year February handle was flat, but handle during March, which had been a huge month in 2016, was down a remarkable 33 percent, from a daily average of about $3.23 million to $2.15 million.

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Most frustrating was that the meet began with noticeable improvements in quantity and quality: Field size during November and December increased to 8.72 starters per race this season from 8.37 last season, and average handle during that period rose 8 percent, from $2,434,441 to $2,649,197.

Average starters per race for the entire meet fell to 8.32 from 8.38 last season, but during January, Fair Grounds averaged just 7.21 starters per race. Field size recovered during February and March as the quarantines ended, but the handle never did.

Favorites during January had a notably high 46 percent strike rate, and the whole-meet average wound up at 42 percent compared with 36 percent in 2015-16. Fair Grounds ran 255 grass races compared with 227 last season as the course continued to perform admirably. Turf races averaged 9.15 starters.

Florent Geroux was the leading rider for the second straight meet, winning 98 races at an eye-catching 28 percent strike rate. Brad Cox won his first Fair Grounds training title with 43 winners, including 33 on turf. Keith Plaisance was the leading owner, and Honorable Duty, who won the Tenacious Stakes, the Mineshaft Handicap, and the New Orleans Handicap, was named horse of the meet.