08/13/2012 3:01PM

Fair Grounds: Quarter Horse meet begins with plenty of runners

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Fair Grounds in New Orleans has given its 12-date Quarter Horse meet that opens Wednesday a fresh look. The season is starting three weeks earlier than normal, the track has reduced minimums on two popular wagers, and a special night card has been scheduled – a first for the Quarter Horse meet.

Fair Grounds, which races through Sept. 1, moved up its start date after conversations with horsemen, said Eric Halstrom, the track’s vice president and general manager for racing. Last year, the season started the second week of September.

“We didn’t have a strong opinion on when to run the meet, it’s only our fifth meet for Quarter Horses,” Halstrom said. “Based on the calendars and schedules of other tracks in Louisiana, this was much better for horsemen. It fit their schedule better.

“We’ve got a couple hundred more horses on the grounds, and we had a race [for Friday] where 26 horses were excluded. Horseflesh is not a problem.”

Jason Boulet, racing secretary at Fair Grounds, said he expects to have 1,800 sets of foal papers on file for the meet. There were 900 horses on the grounds as of last Friday.

“This is by far the most horses we’ve had on our backside for a Quarter Horse meet,” he said.

Halstrom said purses are projected to average $170,000 a card. Fair Grounds will run eight stakes, with a collective value of $410,000. The highlight is the $150,000-added Louisiana Quarter Horse Breeders Association Sales Futurity on Sept. 1. Wednesday’s card features nine trials for the finale.

Halstrom said Fair Grounds will be reducing the minimum on trifectas and pick threes to 50 cents. The previous minimum had been $1. First post is 12:40 p.m. Central daily, except this Saturday, when the card will begin at 4 p.m.

“It is our first nighttime Quarter Horse event,” Halstrom said. “We had a lot of success on the Thoroughbred side with some night racing. For [Saturday], we put a little twist on it.”

Fair Grounds will run some exhibition camel and ostrich races, Halstrom said.

“They’ve proven to be very popular,” he said. “It’s a good time to try this in New Orleans. We should have the whole city to ourselves. I have a feeling we’ll hit a home run.”

Halstrom said Fair Grounds hopes to build off its Quarter Horse meet last year, when average daily handle on the track’s races was up 15 percent over 2010.

Jockey Danny Lavergne is back to defend his title against 2010 champ Alfonso Lujan, who rides Wednesday and then is to serve a week’s suspension for a riding infraction from another meet. Kenneth Roberts Sr. is the two-time defending training champ at Fair Grounds. One of his chief rivals the last two years, Janet VanBebber, has retired.